Bill Clinton’s desire to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations when the latter steps down next year has now graduated from the rumor stage to that of a fact as well-established as such a thing can reasonably be at this point in the game.
In a way it’s so obvious that one can reproach oneself for not having foreseen it sooner. At 58 and in reasonably good health (despite his recent bypass surgery), the former president can expect a decade, or even two, of potentially productive years ahead of him. And, barred by the Constitution from running for president again, his present rather aimless life must be a continuing frustration. He can travel almost anywhere on the globe, being greeted by adoring crowds and make a hundred grand or so per speech, but that’s a far cry indeed from playing a genuinely important role in some major political context. What does a former president of the United States, forcibly retired at a cruelly early age, do for an encore?
The job of secretary-general seems the perfect answer. Whatever its defects and limitations, it certainly qualifies as a major post — the closest approximation there is (albeit not very close) to a “presidency of the world.” It involves frequent travel, lots of speeches and a modest amount of administrative drudgery, but very little really heavy lifting of the kind a president of the United States confronts every day. Best of all, the prestige of the United Nations is currently at an all-time low, thanks to the oil-for-food scandal and all sorts of other embarrassments (including alleged sexual misconduct among U.N. employees in Africa). Clinton could reasonably hope to improve matters and retire someday with accolades for having cleaned up the mess.
And yet, there are some major obstacles in Clinton’s way. It’s true, of course, that the United Nations would not normally choose a citizen of the world’s only superpower as its head, but Clinton is so popular in many countries normally hostile to the United States that he is probably the sole exception to that rule.
More difficult is the problem raised by his wife’s well-known intention to run for the presidency of the United States in 2008. No doubt the Clintons, with Bill at that point well into his second year as secretary-general, would try to depict the combination as downright beneficial: How convenient it would be to have the president of the United States whispering the nation’s wishes to the secretary-general of the United Nations as a form of pillow talk!
But American voters might well be inclined to think that the world would be better off not being run exclusively by the Clinton family. If Jeb Bush’s membership in the “Bush dynasty” is considered an obstacle to a presidential race by him in 2008 (and it is), what should we be expected to think of having the world’s closest approach to a government, and the world’s most powerful nation, ruled by a husband-and-wife team?
Then too, there is the question of obtaining President Bush’s consent to Clinton’s designation as secretary-general. It’s all very well to say that his consent isn’t technically necessary, and that, if it were withheld, many nations would cheerfully vote for Clinton just to put a thumb in Bush’s eye; but the fact is that diplomatic protocol would absolutely require Bush’s approval.
But, curiously enough, Bill Clinton has been snuggling up to the Bush family rather ostentatiously in recent months. President Bush designated his own father and Clinton as America’s team to inspect the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the two were afterward reported to have gotten along famously. Clinton is well known for being able to charm a dog down off a meat-wagon, and he may now be focusing on the Bush family with something more than mere camaraderie in mind.
So keep an eye on Slick Willie, and let’s hope President Bush has some other candidate in mind for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations. (How about John Bolton?)