Thu, 30 Mar 2000

Bill Clinton frustrated in pursuit of peacemaking legacy

By Barry Schweid

WASHINGTON (AP): After hitting brick wall after brick wall on his overseas tour, President Bill Clinton's hopes for promoting peace in South Asia and the Middle East are on hold, at best, and time is running out for him.

Presidential aides have insisted Clinton's goal in meetings with Indian and Pakistani officials and with Syrian President Hafez Assad was to make peace, not to promote his legacy during the last of his eight years in the White House.

But the two basically go together.

Even before Clinton set out for South Asia, his chances of persuading India and Pakistan to back down from their nuclear programs was considered virtually nil. He didn't, and to Clinton's chagrin, Pakistan's military leaders refused even to promise restoration of democracy.

In India, despite lavishing praise on the world's largest democracy, spending more time there than any of his predecessors and respectfully seeing the sights, Clinton heard from government leaders that nonproliferation of technology was not a realistic option for dealing with Pakistan.

Nor was there progress on Kashmir. That could be ominous.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the three-fifths of the Himalayan state that is under Indian control. The dispute is probably even more explosive now that they both have nuclear capability.

On the plus side, Clinton strengthened U.S. relations with India, which have not always been warm. Considering India's growing importance, especially in technology, that was a plus.

His meeting in Geneva with Assad had no such silver lining.

Three hours of face-to-face negotiations, the first lengthy exchange between the two leaders in six years, failed Sunday to restart the talks between Israel and Syria that broke down in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in mid-January.

"The differences are significant and important, and obviously more work needs to be done to bridge them," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

For Clinton to come away empty-handed indicates either miscalculation by the White House or that the dispute between Israel and Syria is intractable.

Neither is good news for a would-be peacemaker.

Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum for the Council on Foreign Relations, said the standoff between Clinton and Assad in Geneva was a disappointment but not a disaster.

"What is clear is that the Syrians are prepared to go a long way on what Israel requires, providing they get all of the territory they lost in the 1967 Mideast war," Kipper said in an interview. "Without that, there is no peace with Israel."

Her advice to Clinton was "to work on Prime Minister Barak to get the Israelis to come to terms with the land issue - for both the Syrians and the Palestinians. There is no peace without it."

Clinton's failure to achieve a breakthrough makes an early accord with Syria unlikely. And in Jerusalem, Israeli officials warned that a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon could spark a conflict with Syria - and put Clinton on a hot spot.

Syria was looking for a helping hand from the American.

Clearly disappointed, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said in comments published Monday in Damascus that Clinton offered nothing new in his talks with Assad.

"We were surprised that the U.S. president was not carrying anything new from the Israeli side but was asking from Syria what might help Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in his difficult position, which we think is of his own making," al-Sharaa told Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper.

The U.S. peace effort, meanwhile, lumbers along on a parallel track between Israel and the Palestinians.

Their negotiators will wind up eight days of talks Tuesday at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., without agreement.

"Our assessment of the talks is that they have been serious, intensive and, indeed, productive," State Department spokesman James Foley said Monday.

The negotiators will return in a few weeks, he said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who will meet Tuesday with Clinton, said before the Geneva meeting that Israel and Syria were close to an agreement.

His foreign minister, Amr Moussa, said the Egyptian president, indeed, was "very hopeful."

With a smile, the veteran diplomat quickly added: "Delete the very."