The president's secret weapon

If he really wants to be bipartisan in the war on terror, Bush should appoint Bill Clinton as a roving ambassador.


Jim Hershberg
September 28, 2001 3:36AM (UTC)

As President Bush takes inventory of the assets available to wage the new war against terrorism, he may be overlooking one potentially useful weapon in his arsenal: his predecessor.

It goes without saying that the Republican president and many of his supporters would blanch at the idea of recruiting Bill Clinton, whom they pilloried incessantly during the impeachment struggle and denounced for a host of sins throughout his presidency. Moreover, as a new president inexperienced in foreign affairs, already viewed by many critics as a policy pygmy on the international stage compared to his secretaries of state and defense (not to mention his own father), Bush, along with his advisors and spinners, is sensitive to avoid any sign that he is less than fully in control of this grim new campaign.

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Yet, the Sept. 11 atrocities transformed the political landscape: the sense of sudden, shocked unity in the face of a common danger now overshadows partisan squabbles. Bush, after a shaky performance as the events first unfolded, has gradually regained his balance, and he must realize that reaching out to former political adversaries would be regarded as a sign of strength, not weakness.

What role, then, might former President Clinton appropriately play in the difficult months, if not years, of "blood, sweat, and tears" that lie ahead? A formal White House or administration post would not make sense. But as America seeks to build a broad global coalition to wage (or support) a massive, sustained and inevitably controversial military conflict, Bill Clinton could serve as an ideal roving global emissary and spokesman for the cause.

Why? First, Bush's collaboration with Clinton would constitute a powerful manifestation to the world and to the nation of American domestic political unity, despite recent acrimonious divisions, especially the impeachment and post-election disputes.

Second, in the months and years ahead, as shock wears off and the initial expressions of solidarity give way to hedging, Washington may find it difficult to assemble and hold together an international coalition. Especially after military setbacks and mistakes, it will require delicate diplomacy to keep wobbly allies -- both governments and publics -- from slipping away.

Sending Clinton as a roaming ambassador could not only exploit his unquestioned gifts as a communicator and close personal ties to many world leaders, but his extraordinary popularity abroad, including in many countries in Europe and elsewhere where suspicion toward Bush is high. In countries upset by previous signs of Bush administration unilateralism on issues ranging from global warming to ballistic missile defense, Clinton's active and visible contribution would also serve as a reassuring sign of multilateralism.

Third, given the security clampdown for the foreseeable future as well as their pressing duties at home, U.S. leaders are likely to curtail their overseas travel sharply -- not only Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld but, given what will undoubtedly be his crucial role in formulating military strategy, Secretary of State Colin Powell. By contrast, in terms of political and military command and control, Clinton (or Gore, for that matter, or former president George H.W. Bush, also candidates for such missions) is -- to put it bluntly -- expendable.

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This kind of mission has precedent in the annals of American crisis. In 1940, with Americans split evenly and bitterly between World War II interventionists and isolationists, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican candidate Wendell Willkie in a hotly contested presidential race. Just a few months after the election, however, FDR recruited his erstwhile opponent as a special envoy to London to see Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and as a crucial supporter of the Lend Lease Act to send aid to the beleaguered British. If the U.S. did not act to stop them, Willkie warned Congress, "the madmen who are loose in the world" might strike anywhere.

And after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt dispatched Willkie on a highly publicized round-the-globe goodwill mission to promote American war aims and demonstrate national unity in the battle against fascism. His 50-day trip in the summer of 1942 improved relations with allies, rallied troops and produced a bestselling book, "One World," which contained an eloquent plea to Americans to remain engaged overseas even after the war was won. "We must fight our way through, not alone to the destruction of our enemies but to a new world idea," he wrote. "We must win the peace."

FDR's willingness to work with Willkie was one of a number of bipartisan steps he took during World War II -- beginning with his appointments in June 1940, after the fall of France to the Nazis, of Republicans Henry L. Stimson as secretary of war and Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt's overtures to the other party stood in bold contrast to Woodrow Wilson's shortsighted failure during World War I to cultivate the support of domestic political opponents -- a lapse that backfired disastrously when the Senate rejected U.S. entry into the League of Nations.

If Bush is to succeed as a war leader, both at home and abroad, he would be wise to emulate FDR's broad vision, and act decisively to enlist his former political enemies in the common struggle -- beginning with Bill Clinton. He needs all the help he can get.

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Jim Hershberg

Jim Hershberg is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.

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