The Magazine


Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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It was a remark of dazzling, if unintended, self-revelation. But its perversity being subtle, it went entirely unnoticed. It does not deserve such obscurity.

During his press conference with Vaclav Havel on September 16, Bill Clinton was trying to demonstrate his engagement in world affairs. He cited the following evidence: "I had a good talk with President Chirac of France, who called me a couple of days ago to talk about some of our common concerns and the U.N. inspection system in Iraq and other things. So I feel good about that."

Feel good? Just days before, Saddam Hussein had announced the termination of that very U.N. inspection system. Having called the American bluff, he shattered the system of constraints placed on him after the Gulf War to keep him from developing the most terrible weapons on earth.

In February, Clinton had himself warned in a speech to the nation of the perils of such an Iraqi breakout: "Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions, a small force of Scud-type missiles, and the capacity to restart quickly its production program and build many, many more weapons." He explained why it was firm American policy to force Saddam, if necessary, to comply with the inspection regime: "What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act? . . . Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."

But now Clinton feels good about his chat about this colossal foreign-policy failure. It feels good to talk with a head of state.

But Jacques Chirac is not just any head of state. He is a head of state who has been singularly destructive of American policy toward Iraq. He has been staunchly supportive of Saddam in the Security Council. He has refused to back any American action to force Iraqi compliance, has sought to embarrass the United States when it threatened to do so, and has pushed openly for an end to restraints on Saddam. In seeking to thwart the United States in the Gulf, Saddam has had no better friend than Chirac. You might expect the president of the United States to feel bad about that.

Not this president. He feels good because for him national interest pales beside personal interest. Indeed, for him national interest does not extend beyond personal interest. This is l'etat c'est moi, writ small. Very small. Phone call small. The Chirac phone call was heartening to Clinton because it served as a prop for his collapsing presidency. A call from the president of a serious country about a dramatic world event shows, does it not, that Clinton still counts among world leaders, that his hollow presidency still has some life. Americans may find it hard to look him in the eye, but foreign leaders are still happy to talk to him on the phone.

And it does not stop with France. Why, just "yesterday, as it happens," said Clinton, "I got calls from the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and the prime minister of Canada, all thanking me for what I said on Monday [re: the world economy] and saying they wanted to be a part of it. So I feel very good about where I am in relation to the rest of the world."

Now, under normal circumstances with less deranged presidents, such giants of the world stage as Mexico, Brazil, and Canada covet the attention of the American president. This American president, however, covets theirs. Under normal circumstances, the president of Brazil is grateful for a mere mention; he'll kill for a state visit. For Bill Clinton, a phone call from Brazil is an emblem of his prestige, his standing "in relation to the rest of the world." Yet more proof that he is not what he appears: a political corpse.

So he feels good. These calls are the diplomatic equivalent of phone sex: It's not the message that counts but the feeling conveyed. They give Clinton the feeling of relevance. Indeed, they recall his immortal protest at an April 1995 press conference, when he was still reeling from his crushing defeat in the 1994 congressional elections: "I am not irrelevant."

The mission of Bill Clinton's life has always been to escape irrelevance; to transcend the provincial anonymity of his Arkansas boyhood; to seek in recognition, "political viability," honor and applause, validation of his worth, his very existence. To prove himself relevant has been the mission of his life. It is now the mission of his dying presidency.