How the World Reacts to President Clinton's Confession

A scandal circles the globe. Some see local consequences if US attention is diverted.

By , Cameron W. Barr and Nicole Gaouette (Tokyo), and Scott Peterson (Amman, Jordan), and contributor Alisa Roth in Berlin.

'One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry," said the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in an editorial Aug. 18. "The American president [has] played with words as if ... sex wasn't always sex."

The world seemed alternately bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by President Clinton's televised speech Aug. 17 admitting to a relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky that was "not appropriate." Reaction ran from outrage to sympathy to shrugs of indifference.

Political leaders were slow or reluctant to comment. But analysts reflected concerns in many foreign capitals that Mr. Clinton's problems could paralyze the world's only superpower.

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Some saw local consequences. Media in the Arab world hypothesized about a conspiracy. Iraq's most influential newspaper accused Israel and the Jewish lobby in the United States of hatching the scandal to force the president to resign in order to have him replaced by Vice President Al Gore, judged to be even more pro-Israel.

Corriere della Sera, Italy's bestselling daily, said the real tragedy was the confrontation between Clinton and his true self, between the US president and the boy who never knew his father.

Proud that he is 'macho'

An Aug. 17 editorial in the Mexico City daily La Jornada summed up Mexican public opinion: It was a "shameful spectacle" to see the president of the "biggest military, political, and economic power on Earth" obligated to "give an accounting on matters of his private life."

A Mexico City administrative assistant recalled telling her in-laws over dinner that she felt sorry for Mrs. Clinton - to which her father-in-law retorted, "Oh no, she should be proud knowing that her man is such a macho!"

A Mexican TV news program illustrated how the scandal is circling the globe by running an Israeli TV commercial for a laundry detergent. The ad shows FBI agents breaking into the apartment of a "Monika Lavinsky" in search of a dress that needs urgent washing. The agents proudly report back to headquarters that they found a white dress and that with the ad's detergent they were able to get it "whiter than white" - to which an exasperated headquarters responds, "But you were to look for a blue dress!"

La Jornada did note that "without a doubt the application of the principle of accountability [a word that is so foreign to Mexico that it is left in English in Spanish texts] has permitted in the US a greater participation of society in public affairs and a greater capacity to keep an eye on the conduct of high officials."

Japan: puzzled indifference

"Will this be the end of the issue?" asked the anchorman, sitting in Tokyo, of a correspondent in Washington. The reporter's answer was inconclusive, probably disappointing the few Japanese who are following the affair.

The popular mood is puzzled indifference. From government offices to narrow downtown Tokyo streets, Japanese say they don't care about the affair or Clinton's reversal. "Our office has no interest in his testimony or his address to the American people," asserts one government official who tracks the US. Even so, he spoke knowledgeably about how the situation could play out.

Some business leaders have wondered whether Clinton's troubles could hurt the US stock market and worry that moves toward impeachment would hurt America's capacity to lead in globally trying economic times.

Japanese attitudes toward extramarital liaisons are relatively relaxed. When former Prime Minister Sosuke Uno lost his job in 1989 for his relationship with a geisha, his greatest transgression - in the eyes of housewives who demanded his ouster - was not that he was seeing her, but that he wasn't paying her enough.

Political analysts quoted in the media noted that the speech didn't add up to an apology. That is what Japanese do when they get into trouble, and when they are really sorry, they resign.

Conspiracy theories

Jordanians took larger lessons to heart and said that the episode simply highlighted the gap between the accountability of America's chief executive and the autocracy of Mideast leaders.

"Western leaders, and Israelis too, are held accountable and dissected by the media," said one Jordanian professional. "Admitting to the truth is seen as important [in America]."

Some say that Clinton - though the most pro-Israel president in US history - is the victim of a Jewish plot. "Everybody thinks this is a conspiracy ... because he was being a bit hard on Israel," says a well-educated Jordanian woman. The trap was "cooked up," she says, because Clinton "publicly criticized Israel" for stalling the peace process.

In Israel, "a country where lying has become an accepted norm in the political system, there is something enviable about America's righteousness and its search for truth," Yoel Marcus wrote in the Aug. 18 edition of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

If Clinton becomes a "lame president" just finishing his term it would mean little US pressure to jump-start the collapsed Mideast peace talks. Then "Monica will go down in history as the woman who had sex with an American president," Mr. Marcus wrote, "and saved an Israeli prime minister," Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seen by some as obstructing peace talks.

Bond of marriage broken

German papers' early coverage was subdued. A front page story in Die Welt, a conservative paper based in Berlin, described the testimony as one of the "most embarrassing procedures that an American president has had to endure." An editorial in Der Tagesspiegel, a center-left Berlin paper, said "Clinton managed to damage the office of president by turning his private character weaknesses into public affairs. He did it and not Kenneth Starr."

The Sddeutsche Zeitung, a left-leaning national paper based in Munich, agreed, writing that it is unlikely that public opinion will "accept [Clinton's] juristic tightrope act about the definition of a sexual relationship."

Der Tagesspiegel also spoke with Michael Noss, leader of the Union of the Berlin Baptist Communities, who said that "extramarital sex, no matter how it's practiced, breaks the bond of marriage."

* Material from Reuters and AP was also used in this report.

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