WASHINGTON -- President Clinton was at the top of his formidable game on Thursday in his press conference after the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty he had signed back in September 1996. He was presidential in argument, literally, invoking the names of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy as the fathers of arms control treaties in the 1950s and 1960s.
He also echoed the attacks of President Richard Nixon (without using that name) on "new isolationists" in the 1970s. There is irony to that, of course: Nixon was frustrated by liberal Democrats wanting America to come home from Vietnam; Clinton's target was conservative Republicans who don't want passports or anything else that smacks of internationalism.
The president turned one question after another to his advantage, waxing eloquent about America's role in the world and about the horror of a world without treaties. Imagining a world without controls, he spun grim and plausible scenarios with desperate countries developing new nuclear, chemical and biological weapons -- because they had to protect themselves from what other countries might be doing.
But great performance did not change the fact that he is in deep legacy trouble on foreign policy. After complaining about the votes of Republicans who obviously did not even know what they were voting to kill, he still had to make all kinds of procedural excuses for why he lost.
He lost not because of old-fashioned isolationist sovereignty freaks on the xenophobic right wing of the Republican Party. He lost because he waited too long to explain the test ban treaty's importance in a world of proliferating technology. Forty-four nations now have nuclear capability, and that might be a good number to stick with for a while.
This test ban treaty was one of his last chances to be remembered as a peace president and as an effective internationalist president. Clinton, who did not always know what he was talking about back in 1992, campaigned as a champion of a new kind of foreign policy concerned more with economics and human rights than weapons and territorial rights. He was a man of globalization and democracy, free markets and free people.
Free-market theory did proliferate on his watch, not always for the better in places like Russia and the globalized old republics of the Soviet Union. But if he gets historical credit for reigning in prosperous times, he will be the first. So far in history, politicians are judged on building or preserving empires of power and geography and ideas -- particularly when markets are free.
Ironically, the man who never served may be remembered as a small-war president, with ribbons for military interventions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo -- much of it too little or too late. He made some progress toward peaceful new generation-bonding with Vietnam, but could not do it in Cuba or Iran. History could be tough, too, on American confusion in guiding a new Russia and abandoning Pakistan in its self-destructive crashing into the nuclear club. On his watch, Nixon trumped his new isolationists by normalizing relations with the big one, China.
President Clinton's big chance now could be helping the United Nations adapt and grow into an organization capable of responding quickly and responsibly to the problems of a new century with new definitions of sovereignty, self-determination and human rights. If it is too late for that -- if the new isolationsits or xenophobes prevail -- Clinton could end up being seen as the Democrat who "lost" one of the great creations of the greatest of Democrats, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
If that happens it will not because this Democratic president doesn't understand the needs of international organizations and does not want to pay the $1.5 billion in dues and peacekeeping fees owed to the U.N. because of spitefulness in Nixon's old party. If the United States fails the United Nations, it will be because this president was unwilling to make it a priority in his relations with the petty isolationists of Congress and his unwillingness to use his enormous political talents to mobilize the American people in the name of Roosevelt and enlightened internationalism.
So far Clinton has seemed to do worst at the jobs he thought he would be best at, beginning with bringing the world together on new-century international issues. The new isolationists, some of them in his own White House and administration, are defeating his presidency. He has talked much and accomplished little on global agreements on the use of land mines and child-soldiers around the world -- and most of all on the survival of the United Nations and internationalism itself.
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