... But a stronger global grasp

Slow start: To his own evident surprise, foreign policy was what President Clinton did best.

January 19, 2001

PRESIDENT Clinton leaves office with the United States powerful, respected and influential.

Military posture has little to do with it. The main reason is the awesome size and stability of the U.S. economy. The secondary reason is world respect for Mr. Clinton's own increasingly sure-handed involvement.

Not that everything succeeded. Far from it. Mr. Clinton had ad hoc policies, not a system or a theory. Many world problems that he addressed remain unsettled.

Yet the measure of his stature was international reaction to the impeachment crisis: Not Mr. Clinton but his accusers stood indicted in the eyes of ally and adversary.

Mr. Clinton came into office a domestic politician denouncing incumbent George H.W. Bush's priorities in foreign policy. His own priority was moralistic but shallow, the mark of an outsider running against Washington.

But he championed the foreign trade initiatives of the Bush administration and spent his own political capital selling NAFTA and the World Trade Organization to a reluctant Congress.

When U.S. troops sent by President Bush were killed in Somalia, Mr. Clinton took a pasting for mission creep, and another for Haitian humiliation of the U.S. flag.

Gradually, Mr. Clinton evolved into an internationalist and interventionist. As domestic initiatives soured, he took refuge, as his predecessor had, in foreign policy.

His greatest achievements in the eyes of many were the use of economic power, directly and through the International Monetary Fund, to rescue Mexico and then southeast Asia from economic crisis, helping bring democracy to both.

Reluctantly dragged into Yugoslav turmoil, Mr. Clinton showed that Europe still needed U.S. leadership, and provided it. In the end, sanctions that hurt populations were vindicated by results in Serbia, but not yet in Iraq.

Handling both Russia and China were the biggest challenges in pure foreign policy. Neither country is what we would wish it to be. Engagement probably kept both from getting worse.

Mr. Clinton immersed himself in two foreign disputes as honest broker. He has valiantly gone the last mile trying to bring accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

He led Irish-American politicians to a constructive sensitivity toward all people in Northern Ireland. While Mr. Clinton's importance is sometimes overstated -- London and Dublin were cooperating without him -- the IRA's fixation on U.S. links enabled him to encourage its commitment to the peace process.

Mr. Clinton's second term was devoted to creating a constituency for foreign policy lacking in the first. An accord between Congress and the United Nations, allowing U.S. dues to be paid and restoring U.S. influence, was his crowning foreign policy achievement.

In foreign policy, he had to quit when he had gotten the hang of it.

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