Thursday, March 30, 2000

President Clinton’s South Asia scrapbook can boast of frequent flyer ticket stubs, but little else. Missing will be the 28-mile helicopter trip over rice paddies and jungles in Bangladesh, a ride on an elephant in India, and Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s eagerness to budge on any count especially the signing of the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In its place, Mr. Clinton received an in-your-face toast from Indian President Narayanan, who let Mr. Clinton know that he didn’t appreciate his country’s being called “the most dangerous place in the world today.” The local Pakistani population in Islamabad cracked Monica jokes. Even the Bangladeshis who received promises from Mr. Clinton of $97 million for food and $8.6 million toward reduction of child labor as well as a request for the sale of natural gas said they’d only sell that resource after “ensuring gas for 50 years for use by future generations.” Having Syrian leader Hafez Assad waiting for him in Geneva was no “welcome home” party either. Even White House spokesman Joe Lockhart couldn’t spin that one the United States saw no reason to reopen the talks between Israel and Syria.

So what did last week’s South Asia trip bring the American people? A bill of an estimated $50 million the most expensive trip ever taken by a president, according to ABC News. A few facts to put the trip in perspective: Besides Air Force One, 77 Air Force planes were used 26 of them the largest carriers, the C-5s and C-17s. That represents more than one-third of the Air Force’s daily inventory. In comparison, when millions of lives were affected by flooding in Mozambique recently, the United States could only muster about a dozen planes for the cause.

But Mr. Clinton who holds the record for chief executive with more travel than any other in history, according to the White House got to be covered in flower petals by Indian milkmaids, stalk Bengal tigers and watch prancing elephants. No matter that he didn’t actually visit the maids in their native village where average daily income is $1.25 and the villagers spent thousands of dollars preparing for his visit. No matter that with each additional sightseeing stop, the president adds millions to the U.S. taxpayers’ bill. And no matter that despite warmer relations being started with India, it said it would keep the minimum credible nuclear deterrent and that Pakistan’s Gen. Musharraf called his country’s own nuclear weapons “indispensable” as soon as Mr. Clinton was out of sight.

Now Mr. Clinton is eyeing Antarctica as a favorable new destination. Is the president above penguin diplomacy? Perhaps, but at least he could count on the polar creature’s treating him with more respect.

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