Clinton has key role to play

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2000, 12:00am

There is little doubt that President Bill Clinton wishes to be remembered, above all else, as a great unifier and a bringer of peace.

From Northern Ireland to Vietnam and the Middle East, few can doubt the sincerity of the United States President's efforts to tackle seemingly intractable political problems, to heal wounds inflicted in the past and to reach lasting deals to achieve peace.

The President and his envoys have not, of course, been entirely successful in solving some of the most daunting political problems of the age, most notably in the Middle East; nevertheless, great strides have been made in many areas.

In Ireland last week, the fondness with which the President is regarded by many people of all political persuasions was obvious. In the troubled province of Northern Ireland, Mr Clinton has been seminal in bringing about a new optimism after so many years of dark despair. The peace process there is fragile and will remain so for the foreseeable future; and yet there are signs that progress towards an abandonment of violence may be a lasting reality. For this, former US senator George Mitchell, Mr Clinton's envoy, must be given a large amount of credit. President Clinton also, at first regarded with deep distrust by many of the Protestant majority in the north, has won a reputation for fair-handedness by publicly welcoming leading figures from both sides of the political divide - Gerry Adams and David Trimble - to the White House.

Achievements in the Middle East have so far been less fruitful. And yet Mr Clinton's sheer determination, his refusal to abandon the feuding parties to their own tragic fate, gives cause for hope that a breakthrough can still be achieved. Recent violence between Palestinians and Israelis has shown that doing nothing is simply not an option and will only lead to long-lasting, low-level violence that threatens to involve surrounding nations in a far more damaging conflict.

The announcement that Israeli and Palestinian leaders may meet in Washington next week suggests that both sides are convinced a negotiated settlement is the only solution to the spiral of violence.

Mr Clinton's part in those talks, should they go ahead, is not yet clear; but it seems certain he will be a key figure. And so he should be. For while his presidency may be drawing to a close, Mr Clinton's special role as a negotiator and disinterested peacemaker should not be allowed to stop. President-elect George W. Bush would do well to ask Mr Clinton to continue his work, in the capacity of special peace envoy.