Even on sidelines, U.S. vital Clinton catches up with diplomacy A DAY OF "HISTORY AND HOPE"

September 14, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In the end, about all the leader of the free world could do was politely nudge the leader of a tiny Middle East nation to shake the hand of a leader who has no nation at all.

It wasn't much of a part for President Clinton, whose role yesterday was to serve as a kind of midwife for a political deal developed in secret, without the help of the United States, and in Norway, of all places.

The rest of the world -- including American voters -- has grown accustomed to much more personal involvement by the president of the United States. But until last week, Mr. Clinton seemed scarcely interested in the Mideast.

Only U.S. could do it

On the other hand, yesterday's dramatic public handshake between two lifelong enemies -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- was exactly what the world was waiting for. And only an American president, it seemed, had the stature to help bring it about.

"The fact that they came to Washington despite doing this without Washington tells you something," said Richard Haass, one of the invitees to the ceremony and a Middle East policy adviser under President George Bush. "In a world where there is only one superpower, leaders and countries that are taking risks find they have a psychological and political need to make sure it meets with U.S. approval and support."

To those who worked for previous presidents who staked everything on various foreign policy efforts, Mr. Clinton's apparent lack of interest in diplomacy has been frustrating. This was even more true this week, as Mr. Clinton appeared to benefit from something he had had little to do with.

"The framework for peace was created by the Camp David accords, the end of the Cold War, winning the Gulf War," Mr. Haass said. "Bill Clinton did nothing to create this context -- he inherited it. Timing means a lot in life, I guess."

Mr. Clinton acknowledged as much by giving credit to both Mr. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter, the two whose policies most directly set in motion yesterday's historic developments. But Mr. Clinton also suggested subtly that his place on the podium was not so much a result of luck as a commentary on the value of the U.S. foreign policy having been guided by continuity and bedrock principles.

"Ever since Harry Truman first recognized Israel, every American president -- Democrat and Republican -- has worked for peace between Israel and her neighbors," Mr. Clinton said. "Now the efforts of all who have labored before us bring us to this moment."

No easy job

Later, the president also acknowledged that once his administration has involved itself in the thorny process of helping navigate a peace between Israel and a fledgling new Palestinian governing authority, it will not be easy to get out.

"I am convinced that the United States must bear a very heavy role of responsibility to make this work and implement the agreement," Mr. Clinton told a group of prominent Jewish and Arab Americans who witnessed the signing.

"This is a remarkable gift he's been given -- and without having to put in the tremendous commitment of time, energy and money that Jimmy Carter did at Camp David," observed Seth Tillman, a professor at Georgetown University and a one-time staff director of a Senate subcommittee dealing with the Middle East. "In time, he may claim more of the credit than he's due, but that goes with the territory. This is the way things are supposed to work. The United States helps create a context for peace, but the local people have to want it themselves."

Need to catch up

The president's first job in the last few days was to immerse himself suddenly in the issue, which he did with a vengeance. Anticipating the next logical step -- direct negotiations between Syria and Israel -- Mr. Clinton called Syria's president, Hafez el Assad, and urged him to have Syria's ambassador attend the signing, which he did.

The second task was to be the godfather at yesterday's signing -- and Mr. Clinton's political gifts appeared to suit him admirably for this task.

"Shalom, Salaam, Peace," said the president, using the Hebrew, Arabic and English words that were the essence of yesterday's mission.

Quoting from the Koran and from the Old Testament, Mr. Clinton, who often wings it during addresses and lapses into slang, stuck to his text and helped keep the tenor of the ceremony on a lofty and respectful plain.

"The sound we've heard today once again, as in ancient Jericho, was of trumpets toppling walls," the president said. "But, praise God, these trumpets heralded this time not the destruction of that city but of its new beginning."

'Quick study'

"You get the impression that when Bill Clinton turns his mind to something, he's a quick study," said William Quandt, who once advised Mr. Carter on the Mideast. "His speech was excellent, he played his part well and he behaved in a very statesmanlike way. It was one of those moments when everyone acted their best. That's one of the reasons why both parties wanted to do it here."

Whether the historic occasion helps Mr. Clinton in the long run at home is another matter.

"He looked statesmanlike in Japan," Mr. Quandt said. "He looked statesmanlike with Boris Yeltsin in Vancouver. But the effect of those trips didn't last long, and I don't think this one will, either. Despite what happened today, Bill Clinton has presented himself to the American people as a domestic policy president who cares mainly about things here at home. And that's how he'll be judged."

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