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Globe Editorial

A wrong role for Bill Clinton

December 28, 2008
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DESPITE formidable political skills and an enduring popularity overseas, former president Bill Clinton would be an awkward choice for a foreign policy assignment in an Obama administration. There has been speculation that the ex-president could be made a special envoy for the Mideast, the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, or some other area of conflict.

This would be a mistake for several reasons - most notably that he should not serve in a position that reports to his wife, Hillary Clinton, the likely secretary of state.

The difficulty of such an arrangement should be self-evident. It would violate the Beltway bromide that you should never hire someone you can't fire. But there are other reasons not to appoint Clinton as a special envoy for a diplomatic mission.

During the presidential primary campaign, Bill Clinton pursued lines of attack on President-elect Barack Obama that harmed, or complicated, Hillary Clinton's pursuit of the presidency. It was unclear then whether he was following her agenda or acting on his own. There should be no doubt that a US envoy on a peacemaking mission is acting only for the American president and secretary of state.

Yet another complication would come from the foreign donors to Clinton's charitable foundation. Earlier this month, Clinton disclosed that his foundation raised millions of dollars from foreign governments including Saudi Arabia, Australia, Kuwait, and Qatar. He had to disclose this list as a condition for Obama to pick Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, even though donors were originally led to believe their donations would not be public. But this disclosure does not eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest.

Furthermore, the former president would come to any negotiating table burdened with specific policy failures during his two terms in the White House. India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons on Clinton's watch. The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, with backing from Pakistan's intelligence agency. And when Clinton broke his own promise not to blame either side for failure at Camp David by casting all blame on Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, he ruined whatever reputation he had among Palestinians as an honest broker. The new administration can't get tangled up in what should or shouldn't have happened in the 1990s. US diplomacy needs a fresh start.

Bill Clinton could serve many domestic causes well. Or he could directly take on the fight against poverty and disease in Africa that his Global Initiative has pursued. But former presidents do not make the best diplomats. And the downside is even greater for one who would report to his own spouse.

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