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Clinton Enters Post-Impeachment Renewal Phase

Clinton and Zedillo President Clinton walks with Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo during Monday's summit meeting. (AFP)

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  • By Peter Baker and Molly Moore
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, February 16, 1999; Page A1

    MERIDA, Mexico, Feb. 15óWith his impeachment trial behind him, President Clinton returned to the world stage today free to focus on international challenges, such as drugs and trade, without the distractions of a domestic scandal that has haunted him at every stop around the globe for the last year.

    Clinton met with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo at a restored 19th century hacienda near here to consult on border issues that have dominated U.S. relations with its southern neighbor, bringing with him $4 billion in export financing and a carefully timed endorsement of Mexico's efforts to stem the flow of illegal narcotics.

    Yet while the agenda was foreign policy, the subtext was the renewal of Clinton's presidency. For the first time since his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky attracted the attention of investigators in January 1998, Clinton was able to leave the country without being followed by the embarrassment of a political crisis that threatened to end his tenure. And aides reported that Clinton has been heartened by comments of lawmakers in recent days echoing his desire to put the divisive chapter behind them.

    Happy to move on, the president even took the opportunity to fan the flames of speculation that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will run in 2000 to represent New York in the same Senate that acquitted him on perjury and obstruction of justice charges on Friday.

    "She would be terrific in the Senate," Clinton said during a photo opportunity. "But that's a decision that she'll have to make. . . . I will support whatever decision she makes enthusiastically."

    If the symbolism of the 30-hour trip helped show a reinvigorated president fully in command, it also served Zedillo's interests, coming at a dicey moment when his government faces heavy fire for not doing more to crack down on drug trafficking.

    Clinton hinted broadly that he will recertify Mexico as a cooperating partner in the drug war, triggering what almost certainly will be a bruising fight in Congress, where many members believe Mexico has been wildly ineffective.

    Both Mexican and U.S. officials have attempted to play down the proximity of Clinton's Mexico visit to the March 1 deadline by which he must recommend to Congress whether Mexico is a reliable ally in combating drug trafficking. But privately, both sides have conceded the symbolic importance of Clinton's trip. Clinton brought with him about two dozen members of Congress, who will be in a position to help defend his recertification decision on Capitol Hill.

    The two presidents and their aides signed a raft of modest agreements on other subjects designed to increase air travel between the two countries, control the spread of tuberculosis and contain violence at the border. The United States also announced that it will provide $4 billion in loans, loan guarantees and export credit insurance through the Export-Import Bank to help Mexican agencies and companies buy U.S. products and services.

    For Clinton, it was something of a liberating experience. Whether in Africa, Russia or the Middle East, scandal had a way of catching up to the president overseas throughout last year. Here in this former colonial city in the Yucatan peninsula, the only mention of impeachment came at a photo opportunity where he was asked if he felt vindicated.

    "That is welcome, there's no doubt about that," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "Now we're back to, say, 14 months ago."

    In speaking with reporters today, Clinton, who was back in the White House by 9:30 tonight, repeated his desire to cooperate with Congress on Social Security, Medicare and education, using some of the same words uttered Friday shortly after his acquittal.

    "This is a time for reconciliation and renewal," he said. "I think what we have to do is to serve the American people. And if we keep that in mind, I think everything will be fine."

    Clinton, who spoke with congressional leaders by telephone Saturday to discuss the possibility of sending peacekeeping troops to Kosovo, agreed with new House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to meet after Congress returns to town next week. And he found reason for optimism that Democrats and Republicans alike sounded similar themes in weekend talk shows.

    "He was encouraged that there wasn't an off-note over the weekend," Lockhart said. "There really isn't anybody on either side who was looking to the next few weeks or months to settle scores [even though] I don't think there's a party in the process that hasn't been aggrieved in some way."

    Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the end of the trial would end U.S. embarrassment among foreign leaders, judging by those she just spoke with during Kosovo peace talks in France before flying here to join Clinton. "They all said they were very glad that it was over and that the United States had reproven its sanity," she told reporters this afternoon.

    Clinton's trip to Mexico -- his second in two years -- put him on friendly territory in a nation where officials, the press and the public have expressed endless befuddlement at impeachment proceedings over an issue they consider a private matter. But even more important, Clinton and Zedillo have developed a particularly warm rapport over the four years of the Yale-educated Zedillo's administration, boosted by Clinton's relentless support, including an international bailout plan after the 1994 peso crisis and defense of Mexico's anti-drug efforts in the face of congressional opposition in years past.

    "There's a new understanding based on respect and dialogue and friendship at the same time that we are approaching areas where we have differences with more maturity and openness," Zedillo said during a public appearance with Clinton at an ornate theater in Merida's historic center.

    The most concrete of the nine agreements signed today by Clinton and Zedillo concentrated on commerce, with largely vague approaches to the more controversial subjects such as drug trafficking and violence against illegal immigrants along the 2,000-mile Mexico-U.S. border.

    Many of Mexico's recently created anti-drug law enforcement agencies -- including units trained and supported financially by the United States -- have been tainted by corruption scandals.

    But Clinton defended Mexico's efforts. "What we know in America comes largely from Mexico's brave efforts to get to the truth and air it," Clinton told an audience of Mexican officials, politicians and business leaders today. "Mexico should not be penalized for having the courage to confront its problems."

    When asked by reporters earlier in the day whether he intended to "certify" Mexico as a partner in the war against drugs, Clinton telegraphed his expected approval: "The fundamental question is are we better off fighting it together or separately" even though the two nations are "perhaps sometimes at odds with one another."

    Clinton billed the drug agreement signed by the two presidents today as "important new benchmarks that will actually measure our mutual success in the war on drugs." But the 91-page document provides few concrete gauges for determining success and diluted many of the specific targets that had been proposed in a document drafted by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy last year.

    The two presidents also signed an ambiguous accord on what Clinton described as "another sensitive issue that has divided us all too often" -- immigration. The two countries would try to improve efforts on both sides of the border to curb violence and to train law enforcement officers in "non-lethal response, proper procedures for patrol and arrest and heightened community sensitivity."

    The most concrete measure signed today would open airports in both countries to more flights from competing airlines.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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