The 'Good Bill' Does Right in Asia

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

What a week we've just been through with Bill Clinton. Two strikingly different presidential personalities surfaced at more or less the same time. Suddenly released courtroom papers depicted the Clinton that fills you with unease: Accurately or not, there he was--say his accusers--the adolescent, sexually compulsive one, looking for whatever in all the wrong places. But that wasn't the Clinton we saw on the world stage, with his formidable IQ homing in on the grating issues of the Sino-U.S. relationship and the still-corrosive Asian crisis. No wonder most of us wish that the troubling Clinton would somehow go away and leave the good one alone. For when this president is good, he is very, very good.

Last week his administration cut a deal with Beijing that understandably irritates today's generation of human rights activists, but which future generations of Americans will appreciate. The Chinese agreed, finally, to sign that U.N. human rights treaty they have long spurned and to release some dissidents at a future date that they should have released long ago. In return, the Clinton administration gave up the effort to have the United Nations censure China for human-rights violations, a campaign it had no chance of winning. And it moved up the president's long-awaited visit to China from November to June--a visit that should have taken place already.

Asked about the sudden change, Clinton replied, "I decided to move up the trip so that we can continue to make progress on bilateral issues that need real improvement, such as human rights and trade--and expand cooperation on regional and international issues, such as peace on the Korean peninsula."

Cynics, take note: This new schedule has the president jetting about as far away from the U.S. as one can get, just after the Paula Jones trial, scheduled for late May. Anyone suspicious about the timing change--i.e., anyone who's ever worked in Washington or seen the hilarious film "Wag the Dog"--might imagine the Chinese are being used. But I bet the Chinese don't have a big problem with this; I certainly don't. If the Paula Jones case is the reason behind the hurried-up China visit, then, at long last this scandal has finally produced something positive.

Although Clinton was late to recognize the dynamic strategic importance of Asia, lately, it seems, he has seen the full geopolitical light and has gotten more involved. Last week, in an obvious photo op not lost on others in Asia, especially Indonesia, he embraced, politically speaking, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai for the good job Thailand has been doing with its reforms. Washington is still trying to jolt Jakarta and its foot-dragging, reform-resisting President Suharto. Clinton, in desperation, has dispatched former Vice President Walter Mondale to bend the ear of the good general. Only someone as exceptionally placid and patient as Mondale could have the stomach for this mission.

Clinton's instinct for personal diplomacy is serving him well in a region where personal relationships among top leaders count. "Presidents can accomplish things in an important negotiation that the rest of us cannot," former Secretary of State Warren Christopher once told me. "I've seen Clinton go into a room and come out an hour later with an agreement that none of the rest of us could have gotten." In the past few months, the president has been on the Asian horn to rally allies and friends behind the bread-and-water reform program of the International Monetary Fund. Since the crisis broke, he has spoken at least once each with Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard; twice with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and at least three times with Suharto.

Is Clinton having any effect? The best answer is, at least he's giving it his best shot. Northwestern University's Jeffrey A. Winters, who is back home after two months in Indonesia, says that the American president is the only leader of a major power who is actually trying to lead. "Europe and Japan are backbiting when they should be closing ranks," says this respected political economy professor. "The U.S. is out there pushing the unpalatable [tough IMF reforms], and everyone else wants to be a free rider because they don't want to pay the political costs."

That's fair praise. I only hope the good Clinton, a man elected to the highest office twice, doesn't get lost in the extraordinary mess swirling around the other Clinton, the man the American people, in their wisdom or otherwise, consciously or unconsciously twice chose to ignore.

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