HE has just turned 50 and is already making jokes about retirement. The grey hair, adequate girth and stately manner acquired over four years in the White House have aged President Bill Clinton.

Yet, the wisecracks about getting older merely serve to underline how Clinton is now playing the part of president with panache. He clearly relishes the role, and is enjoying his return to the hustings for the November election. In the era of politics by television, he is a gifted performer who can strike the right pose for every occasion. He is also adept at presenting simple ideas appealingly, all carefully targeted to please key voter groups.

In reality, retirement is the last thing on Clinton’s mind as he sprints around on the campaign trail. He has a commanding lead in the polls of up to 20 per cent over the Republican challenger, the veteran senator Bob Dole, who could be wiped out by a Clinton landslide on election day. The electoral college system can make a mockery of popularity polls, but Dole will be hard pressed to overturn Clinton’s lead.

At 73, age is an issue for Dole who would be the oldest ever first-term president if he were elected. He has tried to turn the issue to his advantage, evoking his wartime record and a lifetime in Congress to create an image of strong character and dedicated public service. The Republicans choreographed a stylish convention which sidelined the raucous right-wingers who damaged George Bush’s re-election hopes in 1992. The choice of the conservative Jack Kemp as Dole’s vice-presidential running mate also proved popular. Yet, promises that a Dole administration would cut taxes by 15 per cent have not fired the public imagination as hoped By reviving the tax cutting rhetoric of the Reagan years, which generated the biggest budget deficits in US history, Dole has laid himself open to charges of irresponsibility.

He has also drawn attention to one of Clinton’s strongest cards – the economy.

The president has presided over an enviable period of steady growth, stable inflation and falling unemployment. The deficit has fallen by half during the last four years and Clinton is a convert to the longterm Republican goal of balancing the budget.

He has also moved firmly into the political centre on other issues, denying the Republicans their traditional territory and making it harder for them to brand him a high-spending liberal. On the economy, law and order, welfare reform and education there are few Republican positions that Clinton has not made his own. In his defence of Medicare and Medicaid, Clinton can even present himself as the conservative defending venerable institutions against a US Congress, dominated since 1994 by Newt Gingrich and radical Republicans, that would abolish great swathes of the federal government.

Character question

The best chance his opponents have of undermining Clinton is to hammer away at doubts about his character, or hope that the special investigation into the Whitewater affair comes up with damning evidence of misconduct and turns into another Watergate.

With every indicator currently pointing to a Clinton victory, attention is turning to what changes another term might herald.

Second term presidents usually shake up their White House staff and departures are expected Most observers assume there will be a major overhaul of the team that conducts US foreign policy and that a re-elected Clinton will show much greater interest in foreign affairs generally. The argument goes that the president will be concerned about his place in history and will be keen to make an impact on the world stage The approaching millennium and the US’ undisputed position as the sole superpower will be likely to enhance such tendencies.

The departure of Secretary of State Warren Christopher has been widely trailed A dour lawyer, Christopher owed his position to his role in getting Clinton elected in 1992 and brought competence rather than charisma to the job. Possible replacements include the tough-talking ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright. and the former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, who masterminded the Dayton agreement on Bosnia.

In 1992, Clinton characterised George Bush as a foreign policy president who had failed to address pressing domestic issues The charge hit home and Bush’s approval ratings, which were the highest ever recorded by a US president at the time of the Gulf war triumph of 1991, had evaporated by polling day.

Clinton duly spent his first two years in the White House absorbed in domestic policy, such as the ill-fated healthcare reforms, largely ignoring the temptations of abroad. Whether it was Bosnia or the military intervention in Haiti. foreign policy as articulated by Warren Christopher was often criticised for being dilatory and reactive. When Israel and the PLO sprung the Oslo accords on an unsuspecting world in 1993, Washington had to scramble to catch up with events Bush may have set the process in train at the Madrid conference in 1991, but Clinton had not paid attention to its progress. Accusations of being unprepared and lacking resolve were made again in early September when Saddam Hussein breached the Gulf war cease-fire by sending troops into northern Iraq.

Over the past two years the administration has become more engaged overseas, intervening decisively in Bosnia and attempting to broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland. The Bosnia deal could yet unravel, but US diplomacy achieved a result where European efforts had conspicuously failed.

Despite the charges of prevarication in foreign policy, the Clinton administration has been consistent towards the Middle East: unswerving in support of Israel, profoundly hostile to Iran and Iraq, and relying on Egypt and Saudi Arabia as key allies in the area. Policy towards Israel has been especially indulgent, even at the height of Operation Grapes of Wrath in April when the bombardment of Lebanon caused hundreds of casualties.

Clinton was brazen in his backing for Shiinon Peres in the May elections in Israel, but has put no pressure on his hard line successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to pick up the pieces of the stalled peace process. Differences of opinion over contacts with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the overdue Israeli withdrawal from Hebron and the resumption of talks with Syria have been smoothed over during Netanyahus two visits to Washington since he was elected The indulgence has annoyed Arab allies, but they are powerless to do much about it.

The policy of dual containment towards Iran arid Iraq has been pursued single-mindedly Washington lobbied hard to block all attempts to ease the sanctions on Iraq and only relented on the UN oil-for-food deal when it ran out of technical objections.

Tough action against Iran has come from Congress where Senator d’Amato has forced through laws, which Clinton has not seen fit to veto, to limit economic contacts and punish potential investors. US oil company Conoco was obliged to drop a major investment and there has been a storm of protest from US allies in Europe.

Limits of containment

Corporate America is also irked by the restrictions Oil industry executives, in particular, have railed against the rulings which many consider to be damaging to US interests. They are also at odds with parallel US efforts to open up and develop emerging markets (see Trade).

The containment policy was intended to hobble the so-called rogue states and modify their behaviour Its advocates argued that by penalising them for their hostility to the US and its strategy in the region, they would eventually come to accept it Dismissed by critics as naive and counter-productive, the policy has failed to deliver tangible results.

The US remains obsessed by the supposed threat to regional security posed by both Iran and Iraq and committed to maintaining a costly military presence to protect its Gulf allies.

The military presence carries other costs too. Two bombings in Saudi Arabia in November and June killed 24 Americans and revived memories of the Beirut bombings in 1983 which ended an earlier effort at extending US influence in the region The attacks also revived anxieties about the internal stability of the Arab Gulf states themselves and the wisdom of America’s close identification with them.

With the US at odds with so many states in the region and at ease with so few the Middle East will continue to command attention and military resources. A new foreign policy team in Washington will have a half-finished peace process to grapple with, and a half-baked containment policy to review. In the short-term Clinton is vulnerable to charges of vacillating and would like the latest spat with Iraq to cool down without further military action and the risk of US casualties If he is returned for a second term in November the region’s unresolved problems and the temptation to fix them could exert a powerful attraction.