TOPICS > Politics

World Reaction to the Clinton Impeachment Hearings

December 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Around the world the Clinton impeachment was a major story, and the job of foreign correspondents in Washington was to explain the events to their readers and viewers overseas. We get a sampling now from four journalists: Martin Kettle is Washington bureau chief for The Guardian, a British newspaper. Mohammed Wahby is a political columnist for the Egyptian weekly magazine Al Mussawar. Rich Mkhondo is Washington correspondent for the Independent Newspapers of South Africa. And Ayako Doi is editor of the Japan Digest, a publication that follows the Japanese press.

TERENCE SMITH: Welcome to you all. Rich Mkhondo, this was quite a spectacle for Americans this past week or so of impeachment. I wonder how it was portrayed in South Africa and how it was received.

RICH MKHONDO: With a lot of surprise and excitement, sometimes cynicism, but it was, indeed, a very big spectacle. Many South Africans – particularly let me talk on behalf of maybe South Africans and maybe Southern Africa because when President Mandela was here, he did mention it during his speech at the White House that he spoke to several leaders in Southern Africa who actually support President Clinton. The surprising thing is that many South Africans or Southern Afrikaaners believe that this has been a waste of money, a waste of time. They are surprised that the United States can spend so much money to investigate what they at the moment regard as private life of a president. You know, maybe the reason is that in that region we are dealing with issues of life and death. There are things like poverty, unemployment, and so on. Someone even wrote an e-mail to me and said if the U.S. could spend $1 million — of the $50 million they’ve spent — to try and create jobs in our continent, they could do it – could go a long way.

TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kettle, impeachment, after all, is a British tradition, so it’s not very foreign to the public you write for, but what – what was their reaction?

MARTIN KETTLE: Well, we haven’t had an impeachment, I think, for quite a long time – many centuries — so most of my readers haven’t lived through something quite like this. I think the reaction is a combination of shock and delight.


MARTIN KETTLE: I think it’s fantastic entertainment. And people are just amazed by it. And I think I have to say – I hope I don’t offend any Americans by saying this – but I think that for some people in Europe there is a sort of pleasure in seeing the number one nation, which now dominates all our lives, getting into such a mess over such a question. I think there is a sort of sneaking laughter behind the hand, if I could put it like that, about what’s going on. At the same time, I mean, obviously, the basic political reaction is this is a really rather shocking experience and that it is serious, indeed, threatening and dangerous development, not just the United States, whose interests I think most West Europeans have very much at heart, but also in terms of international stability and the – and the resolution of all kinds of conflict, like Iraq, of course, in recent days, but many of the big international questions too. Internationally, the United States is making a bit of a fool of itself, and I think that is a damaging thing for the United States, which a lot of people here don’t really realize.

TERENCE SMITH: Mohammed Wahby, does any of this make sense to the Egyptian reader?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: You see, for us I think it was the timing that – the fact that the impeachment coincided with the attack on Iraq.

TERENCE SMITH: And was there a cynicism, as Rich Mkhondo suggests, about that timing?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: If you have even the majority leader in the Senate doubting the motives of President Clinton, what about us? So it was Iraq but it was also the fact that President Clinton has just arrived from a historic visit to Gaza and making an equally historic speech over there And then a few hours later, almost everything has achieved there was almost decimated, so it was a very sad spectacle for us to see these two things, you know, these two developments coinciding with the impeachment.

TERENCE SMITH: Ayako Doi, how was it received and portrayed in the Japanese press?

AYAKO DOI: I think it’s the feeling of incredulousness that this could come to this. But besides that, I think Japanese are rather concerned about other issues right now. Japanese have just formed a coalition. The government hasn’t come in yet, but they have struck an agreement about coalition. That’s a big news in Japan. And also, as everybody knows, Japan has been struggling economically for several years now, and increasingly in intensity and it is also trying to cope with economic difficulties in Asia, trying to help out at the same time they’re trying to help themselves. And it’s been very difficult, and as much as – as much contention about the Americans there have been over the years, I think Japanese are feeling that now we have to have the Americans being stable to help us economically and politically. I hasten to add that there is a situation in North Korea that is very similar to what’s happening to Iraq if you think of the inspection issue, and so Japanese feel this time about the Iraq attack — it’s not something that they can see as a fire on the other side of the river. It could come to their situation. So I think there’s a lot of thinking going on in Japan.

TERENCE SMITH: When you say incredulousness – after all, Japan is a country where ministers, prime ministers, resign over scandals of one sort or another – the idea of consequence is not unknown – what’s incredulous about it?

AYAKO DOI: Well, I think for one thing that Congress would impeach a president for such an offense. Another thing is that it’s incredible for the Japanese people to see President Clinton hanging on so tightly. Ordinary Japanese politicians would have resigned a long time ago, so that’s an incredible thing, but then on the other hand, you know, Japanese politicians can be resurrected for much more easily than a president can, the U.S. president can, I suppose, so there is a difference. But still, you know, people feel that this is something that’s incredible, that they never thought would happen.

RICH MKHONDO: I just wanted to mention — I’ve been surprised by the kind of support that President Clinton has generated in the region.

TERENCE SMITH: And polls after the impeachment went up.

RICH MKHONDO: Exactly. Well, in Southern Africa, probably because President Clinton was the first president to go there and probably because he – during his time there has been some attempt to have a foreign policy towards the region. Maybe that’s the reason why they support him. The other reason why they support him is that I don’t know whether adultery is regarded as serious – in the region where I come from, although it is such a serious issue sometimes, but it would never actually go to this point.

TERENCE SMITH: Martin Kettle, does this reduce, your opinion, President Clinton’s efficacy abroad, his ability to conduct foreign policy, his ability, if necessary, to form a coalition over military action?

MARTIN KETTLE: Unquestionably. I think it definitely does. As I said earlier, I think the U.S. is seen as making a bit of a fool of itself. I’m sorry to have to say it, but I think that in many parts of the world Clinton is seen now as a bit of a buffoon figure. I think that’s probably wrong. I don’t myself see him in that way, but I think he is treated by the publics of certainly parts of Western Europe – and I’m thinking of Britain certainly – as too much of a joke figure for American satisfaction, in my view – and I think that it does affect policy, I mean, in a much more serious sense – in terms of the efficacy of American foreign policy I think that we can almost say that the Clinton administration has now been written off, and that in the long run most of Europe is waiting for the year 2000, and —

TERENCE SMITH: And a new administration.

MARTIN KETTLE: And a new administration – whatever it is.

TERENCE SMITH: I wonder, Mohammed Wahby, if you agree with that (a) and (b) what effect it would have on any effort to move the Middle Eastern peace process forward?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: To some extent but not all the way because Clinton has an incredible capacity to re-select himself, if I may say, if I may borrow your phrase. He has that capability – ability. And then also why did I say about sad spectacle – because Clinton, as far as we are concerned, as learned a great deal about the intricacies of our region, very, very difficult region to understand, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has moved a great, great distance from having the United States totally identified with one party to become really an honest broker. So we feel some kind of tragedy that this man, who has learned a great deal, was moved also with tremendous resilience to understand us, that we are losing him. That’s why I said sad spectacle.

MARTIN KETTLE: Can I come in here? I think that’s absolutely true. And, I mean, in my remarks earlier – I mean, I want to just make clear that – and I think this is a – it’s a terrible anti-climax because I think the Clinton administration was in a position to do a lot of things. And in the post-Cold War world – it seems to me-that the kind of positions the Clinton administration has tried to adopt – have been on the whole very intelligent ones, which a future administration is going to have to adopt as well. But the problem is, is the ability to execute these – these policies in anything more than a day to day sense.

TERENCE SMITH: Ayako Doi, you say that the people in Asia are still looking to the United States for economic and even military stability and, therefore, to President Clinton.

AYAKO DOI: Well, still it may not be the word. They thought that they could do with – with less involvement with the U.S. for the last several years. Now with the economic crisis and the Korean situation America is counted on much more than the last several years. And there are some new Japanese governments that said that maybe the North Korean situation may be coming to a crunch in early next year – like February or so. And —

TERENCE SMITH: Just at the time when some of this might be coming to a crunch.

AYAKO DOI: Right. If so, then would America have enough leadership and time to devote to make the right decision about what to do about North Korea if they launch another missile over Japan, or something like that, and so that’s —

RICH MKHONDO: While I agree with what some of my colleagues are saying, I don’t know whether when we talk about his inability to effectively use his influence internationally would be damaged by this — it’s entirely correct. It might maybe be that we still have to see someone coming out into the open and saying I can’t deal with this guy who’s a sexual offender or something like that. But I am surprised by the kind of response that President Clinton gets wherever he goes. I was surprised – I was at the U.N. when 183 leaders gave him a six-minute standing ovation. Last week when he was in Israel, the prime minister of Israel had to appeal to journalists to ask Clinton about the peace process. In Southern Africa, we’re dealing with the questions of life and death issues. All we need is economic assistance from the U.S. I have yet to see a leader who’s going to say I can’t deal with this guy because he has done this and this.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, it’s actually better abroad than it is here. I’m afraid we’re out of time. So thank you all very much.