Clinton can't count on pact for rescue Foreign policy achievements don't impress voters

October 24, 1998|By Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman | Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hailed with soaring language for his role in helping to broker the Middle East peace agreement signed yesterday, Bill Clinton walked away from the bucolic Wye Plantation with his presidency emboldened and his legacy enhanced.

And, even though foreign policy successes don't necessarily translate into political success at home -- as one-term presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter found out -- the accord might even help Clinton clear some of the dangerous political hurdles ahead.

The president was lauded yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a "warrior for peace."

Jordan's King Hussein said he had never known anyone with Clinton's "dedication, clearheadedness, focus and determination."

"This is very good news for Bill Clinton," says George C. Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

Edwards believes that Clinton's role in the deal could make the president's impeachment or removal from office over the Monica Lewinsky scandal less likely by reinforcing the public's already high opinion of his job performance.

"One can easily imagine a Democrat saying, 'Here's a man who brought peace to the Middle East and you want to impeach him for this?' " says Edwards.

But others believe that Clinton's foreign policy victory -- if the agreement holds and leads to real progress in the Middle East -- would have more of an impact on the president's legacy than on his more immediate political fate.

"In general, you don't win an awful lot of points politically with foreign policy successes," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

In Clinton's case, Hess says, "it may be his best and last chance to be remembered in the history books as something other than, 'William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd president, for whom an inquiry of impeachment was started, etc. etc.' That's possibly what it's more about."

Hess said the momentous Camp David peace agreement between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, which Carter mediated 20 years ago, failed to earn the Democratic president a second term.

"But it's the one great success he's noted for," Hess says of Carter. "There may be an object lesson there for Bill Clinton."

Over the past nine days, Clinton invested much time and political capital in the tense negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. With his personal stature at stake, Clinton risked the possibility that failure at Wye would be seen by critics as proof of his diminished and scandal-tarnished authority with world leaders.

But even with failed talks, Clinton would have at least succeeded in turning attention away from his impeachment inquiry and reminded the public of his critical role on the world stage.

In fact, Clinton has been so busy over the past two weeks shuttling between the peace talks and high-profile budget negotiations with the Republican-led Congress that the Lewinsky scandal has been largely eclipsed.

Some, especially Clinton allies, are convinced that the president's performance at Wye will have a major impact on his personal fortunes. Republicans who have charged for weeks that Clinton can no longer govern will have a more difficult time making that case, Democrats say.

"There's this continual amazement at his ability to wrest successes out of difficult situations, not only for himself but in policy terms," said Donald Kettl, director of the LaFollette Center of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.

"Just when he has been written off and his presidency dismissed, he may bring peace to the Middle East," added Kettl, who even suggested that a peace accord could energize Democratic voters and yield defeat for Republican impeachment advocates at the polls.

But others -- Republicans and Democrats -- believe that the Middle East peace accord will have little political impact on the Nov. 3 elections.

Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and governor of Colorado, says any triumph that makes Clinton look more presidential affords him some protection in his battles with Congress. But, he says, that will not translate to Democratic successes in the election, where foreign policy is likely to have no impact at all.

Similarly, GOP political consultant David Webber says, "You can't name a campaign out there that is riding on the success of this agreement."

He believes the president may be strengthened somewhat in the short term for his role in this agreement, but not enough to make a difference to the House Judiciary Committee, which has begun its impeachment inquiry.

"It's certainly a grand and genuine success [for Clinton]," says Webber. "But he received a lot of credit for his role in the Ireland peace agreement and, admirable as that was, it didn't turn the tide for him in terms of his domestic political situation."

What's more, the public has become somewhat more skeptical about peace agreements, especially in the Middle East, since they have been signed before with highly publicized handshakes, promises and ceremony -- only to crumble into renewed fighting and bloodshed.

"At least they're moving in the right direction, but the real heavy issues are in the future," says American University presidential expert James A. Thurber of the agreement signed yesterday.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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