- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

President Bush is drawing former President Bill Clinton closer to the administration by sending him 11,000 miles away.
Mr. Bush plans to dispatch Mr. Clinton this month to East Timor as part of a U.S. delegation invited to join a celebration of the island's new independence. The move is the first time the president has enlisted the former chief executive, who has repeatedly expressed his desire to help mediate the Middle East crisis.
The proffered assignment pales in comparison. Mr. Clinton will travel to Dili for the May 19-20 event, along with Richard C. Holbrooke, former ambassador to the United Nations, and James Kelly, the current assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
"The former president was invited, and he has accepted," said a senior administration official, who added the invitation was extended by Mr. Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
But the White House refused to confirm the invitation at a briefing with reporters.
"It is not at the point yet where I can say something formal," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Once it is a formal statement, I will be happy to issue it," said the spokesman, adding that it will come "sometime soon."
"So the answer is yes?" said longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
"Helen," Mr. Fleischer said, "you must be new in town."
Clinton spokeswoman Julia Payne was equally incommunicative.
"Call the White House," she said, in response to a question from The Washington Times. "Once they've made an official announcement I'll be able to give you a reply."
Asked if the former president would have anything to say after such a declaration, Miss Payne said, "It's doubtful."
White House officials yesterday said the invitation was not intended as an olive branch to the former president, whose staff the White House has accused of vandalizing their offices just before Mr. Bush was inaugurated. But USA Today, which first reported the story of the former president's upcoming visit to East Timor, said the choice is an attempt to placate Mr. Clinton after Bush aides repeatedly criticized his efforts to secure peace in the Middle East.
While the invitation is unusual given the circumstances of the 2000 election and the administration's criticism of Mr. Clinton, inviting former administration officials to participate in ceremonial events is common.
In fact, when Mr. Clinton was president, he included Mr. Bush's father in the delegation that attended the funerals of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein.
Mr. Clinton played a role in helping East Timor, an island northeast of Australia roughly the size of Maryland, achieve independence from neighboring Indonesia. The 1999 move sparked weeks of violence by pro-Jakarta militiamen.
The Clinton administration urged the United Nations to send Australian-led peacekeepers to the island. Indonesia annexed the former Portuguese colony in 1976 and ruled it until August 1999, when the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.
The new nation held its first presidential elections in April. Independence hero Xanana Gusmao won in a landslide; turnout was estimated at 86 percent of registered voters.
Since then, the United Nations has governed the island, but will hand over power to the newly elected government May 20. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will swear in the new president seconds after the clock strikes midnight.
The invitation for Mr. Clinton to accompany the delegation comes as the Government Accounting Office nears completion of a report on vandalism at the White House. A preliminary GAO report found departing Clinton aides did at least $14,000 worth of damage at the White House and Old Executive Office Building, stole two historic doorknobs and scrawled obscene graffiti on walls.
Just days after Mr. Clinton visits East Timor, Mr. Bush will meet in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the pair are expected to sign an agreement reducing the two nations' number of nuclear warheads.


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