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United States: Sex Scandal Hurts Foreign Policy

Washington, 23 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- It was expected to be a week of headlines in Washington about the Pope's historic visit to Cuba, President Bill Clinton's talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the continuing crisis with Iraq.

But all that got pushed into the background with the latest sex scandal in the White House, raising questions about the impact of the affair on U.S. foreign policy.

When Clinton Thursday at the White House posed with Yasser Arafat for photographs, American journalists seemed more interested in the sex allegations than the Middle East peace process, even though Clinton said he has a sense of urgency about the issue and wants to press ahead quickly to make progress.

Anchormen for America's three top broadcast networks have hurriedly packed their bags and returned to the United States instead of staying out the week in Havana to cover Pope John Paul's five-day visit there.

Reporters watching for weeks every nuance of U.S. statements on Iraq gave minimum attention to Clinton's warning Wednesday that the time for diplomacy may be running out and that the United States has to be prepared to move alone to gain access to suspected biological and chemical weapons sites in Iraq.

He made the statement in a radio interview (aired on the Public Broadcasting System) which has been rebroadcast and quoted and transcribed and published in all major U.S. newspapers -- but mostly the sections concerning the charges of Clinton's sexual impropriety and reported cover-up, which he has denied.

Some analysts have begun to ask how big a distraction will the current investigation be, and will it affect Clinton's international standing or hinder his conduct of foreign policy.

Clinton himself said that he has done his best to get back to work and contain his anger at the charges that he had an affair with a young intern and then urged her to lie about it to investigating authorities.

He tacitly admitted the matter was taking up his attention, saying he dislikes anything that's a distraction when he is working hard on Mideast peace and other big issues.

A Palestinian official who accompanied Arafat to the White House said Clinton was clearly worried and doing the best he could.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week after lengthy discussions with Clinton that the American president was sharply focused and showed no preoccupation or signs of concern about his personal difficulties.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry Thursday acknowledged that White House aides are having to deal with the scandal and that "it's not business as usual." But he repeated Netanyahu's view, stressing that Clinton "is going to stay very focused on the work that he was elected by the American people to do,"

No one doubts that Clinton will have to spend time and energy dealing with legalities mandated by the investigation when he would rather be concentrating on relations with Iran or China or preparing for a spring summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

But aside from the demand on his time, some analysts say Bill Clinton's presidency has already suffered enormous damage -- no matter whether the charges prove to be true or false.

Outside the frenzied, endlessly speculative preoccupation of major American media with the charges, there is talk of impeachment from some respected Republican politicians, including Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee,

That is beginning to invite comparisons with the late Richard Nixon who resigned from the presidency in1974 under threat of impeachment for an illegal, politically motivated break-in and then misuse of federal government agencies in an attempted cover-up..

Clinton's suspected adultery and alleged encouragement of perjury obstructing justice is hardly in the same class of offenses but there may be other similarities.

A leading Republican party dignitary and former senior official in Nixon's administration, who did not wish to be named, told RFE/RL that in the 18 months of the so-called Watergate scandal, Nixon focused heavily on foreign policy to escape from his domestic troubles.

The Republican said "whatever Clinton does on foreign policy now will be interpreted as diversionary tactics undermining the legitimacy and impact of what he achieves."

He also felt Clinton's authority has been weakened by the scandal, saying "Clinton will no longer be able to command authoritative support at home and in the eyes of the world."

Outside the U.S., foreigners are often bemused and amused by the weight of the moral factor in American politics.

The former official acknowledged that in Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union, where politicians are not judged by the same moral code, Clinton's image may not be so heavily tarnished. "The domestic fallout from the scandal will be far heavier," the Republican said.

He pointed out that an important congressional election is coming up in November and that practically every political candidate will have to say where he or she stands on Clinton.

Some Washington observers say Clinton's current political weakness will embolden his domestic opponents, particularly in the Republican-controlled congress. Legislators are always battling with the executive branch for more control over foreign policy and may now gain an edge, they say.