Clinton seeking to make final fortnight count

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 January, 2001, 12:00am

A newspaper cartoon shows removal workers carrying away the presidential chair across the White House lawn, with Bill Clinton still sitting in it talking on the phone to the Middle East.

White House officials acknowledge that efforts to broker a peace between Palestinian and Israeli leaders are dominating Mr Clinton's actions with 15 days to go in office, but stress that the rest of the world is not forgotten.

'Just because we are changing administrations does not mean we are simply taking down our shingle and going home,' said National Security Council spokesman P. J. Crowley. 'The President is very keen that our efforts around the world helping to integrate former adversaries in Russia and China into the international community continue.'

On Thursday Mr Clinton, saying low-income women with breast or cervical cancer should not be refused treatment, announced guidelines for a law that will provide care for uninsured women with cancer. He issued an order reorganising the Government's counter-intelligence efforts, creating a 'tsar' with a mandate to identify threats and vulnerabilities. And he was expected to declare nearly 25 million hectares of US forest land off limits to road construction and timber harvests.

A decision last week to scrap plans for a presidential mission to North Korea means a Middle East peace deal appears to be Mr Clinton's last hope of going out with a bang. Israeli envoys are now in Washington for briefings with US officials on meetings between Mr Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the White House earlier this week.

There had been speculation that a mission to Pyongyang could have been combined with a dash to Geneva to intensify efforts to ratify China's entry to the World Trade Organisation.

The path to Beijing's entry was forged by the Sino-US trade deal 14 months ago, a pact that Mr Clinton is keen to sit at the heart of his legacy, as part of a foreign policy geared to promoting peace and democracy through economic integration. Speedy mainland membership after president-elect George W. Bush takes office on January 20 and smooth implementation of the obligations it carries may burnish that legacy.

Mr Clinton will be continuing to talk up faith in the economy and stress the need for debt reduction and fiscal discipline. Mr Bush and his team have hinted that any recession could buttress the case for his US$1,300 billion (HK$10.1 billion) tax cut - one of the sharpest differences between the Texas Governor and Vice-President Al Gore.

One Asian diplomat said of Mr Clinton: 'He's yesterday's man already. All our attention is on the Bush camp and that must be a dreadful feeling for the people still working at the White House. Nothing of note can even be attempted until Mr Bush is in the chair.'

Day-to-day business at the White House is complicated by the need to brief Mr Bush's foreign policy advisers and remove files. The White House is swept clean on January 20 save for furniture. Drawers are emptied, virtually all files - including computer hard drives - are removed and sent to storage. Some will go to the Arkansas site of Mr Clinton's presidential library, and national security material will go to the National Archives. A few vital strategic files will remain in the National Security Council inside the White House.

'The law effectively demands that the new president inherits a ghost town,' said one transition official. 'All but the most essential computers are cleaned out and turned off.'