In sports, it's hard to play catch-up-and sometimes it's dangerous as well. When it's late in an important game, you're still behind, and you very much want a place in the record books, the temptation to do risky things gets ominously big.
So the presidency of Bill Clinton bears watching over the next few months. The man whose chief notation in the history books is still likely to be focused on the word impeachment doesn't want to be remembered as a loser. With time running out, he'd obviously love to pull off a big play or two to shift the crowd's attention away from earlier fumbles, interceptions, and assorted miscues.
So it's no accident that a good bit of Mr. Clinton's attention since last year has been directed to issues in places like Northern Ireland and the Middle East. With no dramatic victories available to be won on the home front, he must be thinking, maybe the historians would look with favor on a couple of demonstrations of peace where only war had been known for generations.
It must be terribly frustrating now, therefore, to Mr. Clinton and his administration to watch their efforts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and elsewhere cracking and crumbling before their eyes-especially when significant agreements had not long ago seemed within reach. Partners who just a few weeks ago had stood up from the negotiating tables to shake hands for the photographers now are playing hard to get, or worse.
The problem is that you can't send a boy to do a man's work-and especially a boy with a penchant for doing things on the cheap. Having unleashed polarization on his own people, what qualifications does this man now offer as a would-be peacemaker? Why should such a man's word mean more to those in other nations than it has among his own countrymen?
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says no other president has amassed "the degree of trust among all the parties" in the negotiations involving Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon. But Sen. Biden is the man who had to set aside his own presidential ambitions when it was discovered he was given to plagiarism; he's hardly the first place you'd turn for expertise on the matter of trust.
Yet if trust is the prime qualification a peace broker brings to his or her task, it is fair to ask: What qualifies this president, and the people who speak for him, to say to the Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland that he has something to tell them about trusting each other? Why should the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, and the Lebanese suppose that their cynicism toward each other might be healed in any way by a man whose own country has only grown more cynical during his time in office? (Indeed, according to The New York Times last week, one of the main Clinton contributions to the Middle East mess has been to show Israel's current political leaders how to pull off some of the same financial shenanigans in campaign financing that have gotten Mr. Clinton's own team in so much trouble.)
The book of Proverbs (and indeed the whole Bible) makes it clear that integrity matters. You can't cheat in a few selected corners of your life and have any right to expect trust in others. When a man's own wife, the leaders of Congress, and voters throughout the electorate all have to set aside anything resembling basic trust in such a person, it's presumptuous indeed to pretend he has anything significant to bring to a serious bargaining table, or that he can profitably tackle some of the most intractably bitter problems ever to be handed down from one generation to another.
Over the last few years, the suspect timing of at least two of the bombing offensives against Iraq, the launch of the war in Kosovo, and the perpetually dark dealings with China-all these do little to raise credibility in any late-term foreign policy "triumphs" that might emerge over the next few months. The fact that the world is asked to stand by and hope is little more than still another late-inning reminder of the brazen chutzpah of this man and his followers.
So the world must do more now than simply stand casually by with skepticism. It should worry a little, watch with scrutiny, and set its defenses against the dramatic proposals all but certain still to come from this man so eager to make his big mark. Write this down in your international notebook: The more end-of-his-term frustrations this man faces, the more frantically will he try to shape some last-minute heroics.