Clinton's legacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 January, 2000, 12:00am

President Bill Clinton had good cause to smile as he delivered his final State of the Union address in Washington. Only a year ago he faced the threat of being forced from office in disgrace as Congress sought to impeach him over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Now that scandal is receding from memory. And that will help him be remembered also as the president who presided over the longest period of sustained growth in US history and turned record deficits into a budget surplus.

How much he contributed to an economic expansion which began before he took office is debatable. But the political reality is that just as presidents are blamed when the economy turns sour, so do they inevitably take much of the credit when the nation is prosperous.

Nor is this entirely undeserved. In consistently pushing for free trade, Mr Clinton has certainly played a part in fuelling the American economic expansion.

There have been successes, such as Congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And there have been failures, such as last month's Seattle riots, which largely scuttled his efforts to jump-start a new round of international trade talks.

But throughout all this, one constant theme has been Mr Clinton's recognition that opening markets is crucial to continuing prosperity in an age of increasing globalisation.

That was evident in yesterday's address where he reiterated his commitment to push through the trading privileges necessary for China to gain full World Trade Organisation rights in the US market. Some had expected him to shy away from such a sensitive subject in an election year.

But the emphasis he gave it shows a clear intention to secure Congressional approval before leaving office.

On foreign policy, Mr Clinton's legacy is also generally positive. In Kosovo, a US-led bombing campaign brought ethnic atrocities to an end by forcing a Serbian withdrawal. In the Middle East, Israel has forged a tentative peace with the Palestinians and may strike a deal with Syria later this year.

Over Asia, he resisted domestic pressure for US troop withdrawals. But it is the policy U-turn toward China and his high-profile advocacy of seeking a constructive engagement which is most likely to be remembered in Hong Kong.

Mr Clinton has shown many personal failings. But it is on his policies that he should be primarily judged. On that count, there is much about which he can take pride in his final White House year.