A President's Learning Curve: On Deck: The Foreign-Policy Education of Bill Clinton-And How Gore and Bush Might Do

Article excerpt

When Bill Clinton was a novice president, he requested a private tutorial in statecraft from an unlikely teacher--Richard Nixon. On the night of March 8, 1993, over Diet Cokes in the White House family quarters, Clinton and Nixon ended up covering everything from China to health care to how fat Clinton got in the New Hampshire primary, but the political odd couple talked mostly about Boris Yeltsin. Clinton called it the "best conversation I've had in the White House," adding that Nixon advised him that he would prevail in foreign policy only if he got to know his fellow world leaders as people and to understand the pressures they face as politicians.

He took Nixon's counsel to heart--and became a better president for it. Succeed or fail this week at Camp David, Clinton is a far stronger statesman today than skeptics expected after early stumbles in Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia. How did he do it? By honing his intelligence with hard work and exploiting his gift for empathy. Reviewing how Clinton has managed the Middle East peace process is a good way to gauge how Al Gore and George W. Bush might handle similar challenges.

It all began with the handshake. Although the United States didn't play a role in the 1993 Oslo agreement, Clinton insisted (over the objections of some at the State Department) on sealing the deal with a White House ceremony. Speaking to the Middle East over Israeli and Arab television, his message was clear: if the Israelis took risks for peace, they would be protected; if the Palestinians took risks for peace, they would be respected. His visible grief and moving goodbye to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his unprecedented appearance before the Palestinian Parliament cemented emotional bonds with both sides. …