Bill Clinton Takes Spot On Global Stage

Former President Bill Clinton stops at a refugee camp in Jantho village in Aceh Besar, in Indonesia's tsunami-hit Aceh province.
Former President Bill Clinton stops at a refugee camp in Jantho village in Aceh Besar, in Indonesia's tsunami-hit Aceh province. (By Tarmizy Harva -- Reuters)
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 1, 2005

In 2001, in the opening months of his ex-presidency, Bill Clinton confided to an aide that he had decided on his dream job for the next chapter of his life: secretary general of the United Nations.

The goal may not be realistic, he acknowledged, but he then went on to analyze all the factors in minute detail, as though he were preparing for a political campaign: whether a U.S. president would ever see fit to back him, for one, and what it would take to persuade other nations to bend the long-standing tradition that the top job does not go to someone from a country with permanent status on the U.N. Security Council.

His ambition, as the aide described it, was both breathtaking and entirely logical for a natural-born politician who had reached the top of the American political ladder: "president of the world."

Four years later, say several associates who have spoken with him in recent months, Clinton regards his dream of leading the United Nations as something more than a flight of fancy and something less than a serious prospect. Already, however, he has succeeded to a surprising degree in fashioning his ex-presidency to make himself a dominant player on the world stage.

His ambitions are no less obvious than when he was on the rise as a domestic politician. Clinton wants to present an alternative face of America to the rest of the world -- in implicit opposition to President Bush, and to create a legacy that builds on his eight years in office.

His recent appointment as the U.N. representative on tsunami relief is the highest-profile example of Clinton's travels and activities abroad. The extent to which the 42nd president has preserved influence even after leaving the White House will be far more obvious in September. That is when a large delegation of world leaders, U.S. politicians, business leaders and celebrities of various stripes will arrive in New York for the first Clinton Global Initiative.

The event, as Clinton recently described it, is modeled after the famous annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But Clinton has said he wants his three-day event to be more focused on concrete results. "I'm telling people not to come unless they are prepared to make a commitment to do something when they leave" on the conference's themes of fighting poverty, religious conflict and environmental degradation.

Among those planning to attend are British Prime Minister Tony Blair, King Abdullah of Jordan, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Even Rupert Murdoch, whose New York Post and Fox News network are favorite platforms for many of the harshest Clinton critics, plans to be there.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, also organized his post-presidency around international endeavors. But, as the upcoming meeting illustrates, Clinton's post-presidency is in many ways without precedent.

Carter, whom Clinton has described as the most impressive modern ex-president, eventually won a Nobel Peace Prize, but first he spent several lonely years recovering from his 1980 reelection defeat by toiling in relative obscurity. Much of his work has been in remote Third World villages, with no cameras. Clinton, by contrast, relishes the headlines that invariably follow from his overseas jet-setting. So far this year, he has visited 22 nations and met with more than 30 current or former heads of state.

Aides say Clinton's aim is to use his celebrity and networking talents with heads of state and various other famous and wealthy people on behalf of causes such as clean energy and AIDS relief. His Clinton Foundation, for instance, has negotiated steep discounts with pharmaceutical companies on antiretroviral drugs and is facilitating their delivery to about 110,000 people with AIDS in the developing world, with a goal of reaching 2 million by 2008.

Foreign Policy Confidence

Viewed from a long perspective, Clinton's post-presidential career contains an interesting historical twist. In the early years of his administration, the wide perception was that he was predominantly a domestic president.

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