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TFF PressInfo # 113

Clinton missed the greatest
opportunity of our age





February 18th, 2001

LONDON - He was one of us, I always say, a child of the sixties and seventies, an anti-war protestor, and idealist, and very clever to boot. Moreover he knew poverty and family hardship first hand. It was in his soul to try and make the world a better place, you would have thought. But he blew it, for himself, for his country and for all of us. If an artist were commissioned to paint the eight years of the presidency of Bill Clinton it would be a landscape of missed opportunities.

About five years ago I had lunch with the Pulitzer Prize winning editorialist, Paul Greenberg, and my misgivings all fell into place. Greenberg won his formidable reputation as the editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, a paper with a circulation of 20,000 out in the sticks of rural Arkansas. "In all his years as governor of Arkansas I never saw him as a reformer"; said Greenberg, "he was a trimmer, a waffler. I give you one example. He talked a great game on the race issue, but Arkansas didn't get a Civil Rights Act until after Clinton was gone." So he had always been like that. During the presidential campaign we had simply been taken in by his charm and energy.

He won the presidency at a time when America was arguably ready for anything. The Cold War that had consumed the energies of a whole generation was over. Major war was a distant memory. America was about to enter a new era of prosperity. He had the great facility of communication and the American public was prepared to lean over backward to allow this relatively young man to pick up the mantle of the assassinated John F. Kennedy and lead it into pastures new. He didn't do it. It quickly turned out that he had no vision, no deep convictions, and no overriding purpose. One of his first acts, presumably to quieten the Pentagon that was nervous and antagonistic because of his draft-dodging the Vietnam War, was to launch a cruise missile attack on Iraq. Eight years of bombing Iraq have taken the undermining of Saddam Hussein not one step forward, and the American-led embargo has meanwhile created enormous suffering for the ordinary people of Iraq, in particular the children.

A short while after the cruise missile attack he made the decision to pull American troops out of Somalia where they were supposed to be part of a United Nations peace-keeping force. In fact they had operated independently under the direct authority of U.S. Southern Command in Florida and had decided to engage in combat with one of the rebel leaders in a very non-UN way. It leads to the deaths of eighteen American soldiers. Instead of taking the blame himself Clinton turned on the UN. For the rest of his term the UN has remained the bete noire of much of the American public, an easy target for Senator Jesse Helms who has tried to starve it of U.S. funding. This should have been the era of the UN coming into its own with the Security Council working in harmony, as the Charter mandated, to end "the scourge of war". Ironically, there was more of this under his predecessor, George Bush, than there was in Clinton's own administration.

Indeed, substantive progress in building a sane and sober relationship with post-communist Russia occurred more under Bush than Clinton. Under Bush there was serious nuclear disarmament. Under Clinton, as the former Soviet president, Mikhael Gorbachev, recently observed "disarmament moved further during the last phase of the Cold War than during the period at its end". For all Bush's conservatism there was no indication that he had serious thoughts of expanding Nato up to the frontiers of Russia.

Yet, in an effort to woo Polish, Baltic and other east European votes in the mid-West Clinton promised to do - and did - exactly that. As the great Russian expert and former ambassador to Moscow, George Kennan has observed, "it was the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era." From then on the relationship with Russia was doomed to be an uncertain and difficult one; before the U.S. had had the chance of making Russia a real friend, even a part of the western world.

Even modest step forwards to cap the nuclear genie came to naught. Clinton lost the Senate vote on ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, an American initiative and a key element in forestalling nuclear proliferation, because he left it to the last minute to publicly campaign for it. It fell between his open fingers much to dismay of his western allies and added to the widening malaise that said in effect "if the West is not interested in taking serious steps towards nuclear disarmament why should we?" India and Pakistan's decision to go openly nuclear owes much to the climate of opinion that Clinton's lack of activity on nuclear issues engendered.

It was the same at home. A run of appalling murders in schools by pupils toting guns should have sparked Clinton into full throttle action. He should have told the American public that this was the last straw, that the gun lobby had gone too far and that it was time to join the civilised consensus in the rest of the West and disarm at home. After his 1996 re-election he had nothing to lose. He could afford, if necessary, to be unpopular.

But then he would have to have been a different kind of character. As Paul Greenberg says, "Clinton has gone through life careless about other people. He has no moral compass. There is a lot of sentimentality in the man. He can be sentimental about others, but he's mainly sentimental about himself."

Now it's goodbye to President Clinton. It should not be a fond farewell. The great historical opportunity that was open to him was squandered. Our generation's big chance to build a better world was frittered away.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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