Has Bill Clinton pulled off a foreign policy triumph?

on a presidential comeback
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ACCORDING to current Washington wisdom, President Clinton is so distracted by sex allegations and legal battles that he cannot concentrate on affairs of state. His presidency is over, killed off by his libido. No less an authority than Watergate hero Bob Woodward and his Washington Post colleague and Clinton biographer, David Maraniss, have made the case. So it must be true.

But with the White House now decamped to Africa for almost two weeks and the mist of sex allegations starting to clear, the joke may be on America. Perhaps it is not the President who has been distracted by Paula- Monica-Kathleen et al, after all, but the US political and media establishment, with public opinion not far behind. Maybe they are all having such a rip- roaring time frolicking in the ongoing soap opera of risk, gossip and innuendo, that they have failed to spot something much more important: the great American ship of state is being slowly turned and redirected, almost unopposed.

Consider the following. Last Friday, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, with President Clinton's blessing, announced a sharp change in policy towards Cuba, the last remaining Communist country in the western hemisphere, and a perpetual irritant to the United States. For years, Washington has aimed to bring about the demise of Fidel Castro by squeezing his people until they rebelled. Last week, thanks in part to the mediation of Pope John Paul II, that policy was abandoned. The US will now work to undermine Castro's rule by making Cuban life better.

There will be more money from abroad, more medicine, thanks to a reduction in red tape, and more food, through new export arrangements. In a nod to domestic hardliners, Washington will maintain its economic embargo and its Helms-Burton law requiring sanctions against third parties doing business with Cuba - but what price such grandstanding once food and medicine from the United States are exempt?

This week, despite a last-minute hiccough, the US Senate could approve the expansion of Nato to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, after only a few hours of low-key debate. Just a few weeks ago, Nato expansion was seen as President Clinton's big political battleground for 1998. The mood of the Republican-majority Congress was considered threateningly isolationist. Senators were thought reluctant to commit more money to Europe. They were worried, we were told, about the cost of admitting new members, the dilution of Nato's military preparedness and the risk of offending Russia.

In the event, Nato expansion cleared the crucial Senate foreign relations committee with barely a murmur against. Last week, it started its passage, almost unhindered, through the Senate. Not only were Americans more interested in Paula-Kathleen-Monica, so, it seems, were their elected representatives.

And what of Iraq, the bogey of US foreign policy for the best part of a decade? Since the eleventh-hour agreement on weapons inspections clinched by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan four weeks ago, US officials have been strangely quiet. The New Year belligerence from Washington which suggested Iraq was ready to poison the world with anthrax, VX and other unspeakable substances, has faded to silence. US troops are still in the Gulf, on alert, but little is heard about them now and their numbers could soon be reduced. It is whispered even that UN inspectors may not find any more weapons: in which case, the less war-mongering the better. On Iraq, a US retreat is at hand.

And what about the UN itself? An outburst from Congress about the unacceptability of "subcontracting" US foreign policy to so suspect a body was short-lived. Admittedly, American dues to the UN are still unvoted and unpaid, but in Washington the recognition has spread that he who does not pay his dues cannot expect UN support.

A rethink is also in train with Iran - until recently as great a Satan in the demonology of US foreign policy as Iraq. Two months ago, Washington responded coolly to an olive branch extended by the newly elected Iranian President, Mohammad Khatmi, courtesy of CNN. It took its time to "study" the televised interview. Officially, that study period continues. Washington still demands "deeds, not words". But in practice, here, too, the US is shifting.

Mr Khatami called for "popular diplomacy" - exchanges of unofficial envoys - before official relations got going. The US wanted official talks first. It said no, but apparently meant yes: visits are now encouraged. In echoes of ping-pong diplomacy with China, an American wrestling team went to Iran this month. Barely acknowledged in the US, it was feted in Iran - then welcomed back at the White House by the President. Jaw-dropping stuff, except that no one noticed. They were too busy laughing about Paula, Kathleen, Monica and the rest.

Meanwhile, the quest for peace in the Middle East, the issue that has been a priority and touchstone for US foreign policy over decades, has been quietly downgraded. Washington, it seems, can now live without forging a durable peace for Israel, just so long as there is no outright war and the American domestic political constituency is suitably distracted - which, of course, it is.

Added together, these are momentous changes. America's ship of state is cumbersome and switches direction only slowly. Officially, the Middle East still heads the US foreign policy agenda. Nato expansion must still be argued through. Iran, Iraq and Cuba are still enemies that have an emotional hold on American opinion far beyond their offensive capacity, and Europe and Russia are still baulking at US attempts to make them join Washington's private fights.

But when Americans eventually awake from their White House sex dream, they could find a friendlier world out there: a bigger Atlantic alliance; a less threatening Iraq; a more moderate Iran; a less truculent Cuba; and Europeans and Russians no longer grousing about Washingtonian arrogance, but helping build those diplomatic bridges the United States so badly needs.

Not a bad tally for a President supposedly so distracted that he is losing his grip? Bill Clinton is either the most fortunate president this century or a consummate political operator who could emerge a statesman - a man who woos the world as persistently as he woos women (though perhaps to happier effect).