What Bill Clinton left behind for George W. Bush

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2001

WASHINGTON -- More like a new president than a retiring one, President Clinton has been working hectically -- making speeches, making changes by executive fiat, trying to achieve an elusive Mideast peace -- but on Saturday he still will leave behind an ambitious agenda -- goals unreached, hopes unfulfilled.

The Middle East peace agreement Clinton said he ''really wanted, with all my heart,'' proved elusive. With less than two weeks left in office, the president acknowledged ''we've got a mess on our hands'' and started speaking more in terms of closing gaps between Israelis and Palestinians than in closing a peace deal.

At home, Clinton's plans for devoting the federal surplus to Social Security and Medicare went unheeded by Congress, as did his appeals for tighter restrictions on handguns, sweeping reforms of the nation's campaign finance system and a hate crimes law that also covers attacks on gays.

No matter how much labor Clinton exerted in the final days, ''it is, for the most part, over,'' said University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles O. Jones.

A Mideast peace accord -- unachieved for half a century -- was Clinton's highest foreign policy priority, but he also leaves behind an incomplete peace processes in Northern Ireland and between India and Pakistan, where he had hoped that a ceasefire in Kashmir could somehow translate into a permanent peace.

Additionally, Clinton failed to make good on efforts to defuse a simmering situation in Africa -- the incomplete peace talks among the African nations around Burundi, an effort he plunged into seriously just last August.

''Peace processes work on their own timetable, not on ours. I don't think they would be geared to our election schedule or our transition schedule,'' said national security spokesman P.J. Crowley.

So Clinton kept trying. He made a third trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland to give peace efforts there a boost, and only reluctantly abandoned hopes to visit communist North Korea. His desire was to see to fruition his efforts to halt nuclear weapon development there and thaw relations with South Korea.

''When I became president, I was told by my predecessors that it was the most serious national security problem we were facing at the time,'' Clinton said about North Korea in a November interview with The Associated Press.

President-elect Bush left Clinton wide latitude to do what he wishes. ''Until I'm the president, he is going to make those decisions,'' Bush said over and over.

Clinton also leaves behind the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was completed in 1996 but which cannot take effect until it has been approved by the United States and 43 other nations that have nuclear research or power reactors.

Britain, France and Russia have signed and ratified the accord. China has signed but has yet to ratify it. North Korea has not signed, and India and Pakistan, which have engaged in a nuclear arms race in South Asia, also have not.

The United States signed it in 1996. The Senate rejected its ratification in 1999. Bush has opposed the pact as unenforceable.

Defense Secretary-designate Donald Rumsfeld also opposes it, although Secretary of State-designate and former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, supports it.

There were some matters that Clinton was content to leave to his successor, such as a decision on creating a national missile defense system. And there are others that he has willfully left undone, such as the report on U.S. race relations he promised to deliver two years ago.

Another front where Clinton hoped his hyperactivity will pay off is trade. He was able to secure his biggest trade priority, permanent normal trade relations with China. But for American companies to reap the benefits of China's market-opening offers, the Chinese must be admitted to the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based organization that sets the rules for world trade.

Clinton also completed negotiations on a trade pact with Vietnam and a free trade agreement with Jordan. But it will be the new Congress, under a new president, that will debate whether to accept the agreements.

''The only thing that I'm feeling about this last year is that I just want to keep working, I never want to sleep,'' Clinton told The Washington Post last summer, looking ahead to his last months in office. ''I just read and read and read, I just want to keep going.''

''I can rest starting at noon on Jan. 20. And that's what I intend to do.''

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