What to do with Bill?
Bill Clinton is back, as peacemaker, a role he knows well
Posted December 3, 2008
It's stunning how fast Bill Clinton's stock plummeted - faster, it seemed, than the Dow Jones industrial average after the fall of Lehman Brothers. When Hillary Clinton launched her bid for the presidency, the question was: How would she deploy "the greatest politician in our generation"? Unfortunately, a few ill-timed comments caught on tape during the campaign transformed Bill almost overnight into the crazy uncle in the attic, an embarrassment to be kept largely out of public sight.
Early in her campaign, Hillary called Bill "the most popular person in the world" and vowed to use him as a "roving ambassador." Now that she is a step away from becoming the nation's top ambassador herself, the question returns: What should we do about Bill?
Last year, I learned just how popular Bill Clinton is overseas. In Ireland, strangers in pubs insisted on buying me a Guinness just because I was researching a book about him. Traveling with Mr. Clinton in Africa, I was almost trampled by a crowd in Tanzania that was so hungry to touch the man that they jumped over barriers en masse, to the visible horror of the Secret Service.
Outside the U.S., people's feelings about Mr. Clinton are a lot less conflicted than ours. They don't care about Monica Lewinsky or about his critical remarks about Barack Obama during the campaign. In Ireland, they love him because he played a crucial role in bringing peace to their country. In Africa, it is because he is saving a million lives in his Clinton Foundation's fight against AIDS. But more than that, around the world people feel a personal connection to him. "Why, when he goes to India, do they have hundreds of thousands of people?" James Carville asked me. "Was his India policy really any different from that of George Bush? I doubt it. When people look at him, they say, 'This guy cared about us.'"
There is one obvious role that Bill Clinton is uniquely qualified to play on the world stage: peacemaker. He is the most prolific peacemaker in American presidential history. Everyone remembers the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, and many recall that he brought peace to Northern Ireland and stopped the genocide in Bosnia - all huge achievements. But few have any idea how ubiquitous a force for peace Mr. Clinton really was.
During his presidency, Mr. Clinton appointed special envoys to virtually every troubled region in the world. He helped avert nuclear war between India and Pakistan and worked to reduce tensions between Greece and Turkey. He also played a central role in resolving lesser-known conflicts, for example between Peru and Ecuador and between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Almost anywhere there was conflict, Mr. Clinton was personally involved.
His unique ability in this area is rooted in his psychology. Because he played the peacemaker in his troubled alcoholic family, it is a role he is driven to perform. Because he is naturally empathic, curious and intelligent, Mr. Clinton has an almost uncanny natural ability to master the details of every local conflict and makes people on all sides feel that he both cares about them and "gets it." Because he is a gifted politician, Mr. Clinton understands how to get foreign leaders to say "yes" by structuring aid, deals and public photo ops to make them look good to their constituents for doing the right thing.
In such a role, would he steal the thunder from his wife, the incoming secretary of state? Not at all. The Clintons have always been a team. She played a supporting role to him as first lady; now it's his turn. Bill's unique peacemaking skills will complement, not contradict, Hillary's diplomatic skills.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, head of the Armed Services Committee, has said that he thought it "entirely likely" that Bill Clinton would be tapped by President-elect Obama as a special envoy to mediate the conflict between India and Pakistan, which has heated up again after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. If Mr. Clinton can head off a nuclear war, it is not only his stock that will rise again. As he said in Northern Ireland: "In peace, everyone can win."
This was originally published in the Baltimore Sun