Who would have thunk? CLINTON'S TRIUMPH By RALPH PETERS -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- January 19, 2004 -- I NEVER thought I'd give Bill Clinton a standing ovation. But last week in Qatar I did just that. Our former president gave the most perfectly pitched, precisely targeted speech I've ever heard to a hall filled with Muslim intellectuals and officials. And they listened. Clinton's lecture closed a worthwhile, if often exasperating, conference on the future of the Middle East's relations with America. Sponsored by the Emir of Qatar and organized by the Brookings Institution, the event brought together a combination of the usual suspects and outside ringers for vigorous, open discussions. A few of the sessions did manage to move a fragile half-step beyond the "everything that isn't Israel's fault is America's fault" mantras that sedate Middle Eastern societies. Still, by the closing luncheon, I'd had about enough of Muslim "authorities" whose versions of their own history had collapsed into easy myths and for whom the Koran had become a document to be used as selectively as the phone book. Enter Bill Clinton. Now, after serving in Washington during the Clinton administration and hearing our former president chatter for checks more recently, my expectations were that he would do no harm, but little good. I was wrong. As soon as he took the podium, Clinton began taking stands as brave as they were necessary. With virtuoso skill, he led the audience where they needed to go - while convincing them it was where they had wanted to end up all along. His sense not only of what required saying, but of how best to express it to that complex, contrary audience was almost supernatural. We all know that Bill Clinton can speak persuasively, of course. But in this case the message mattered. Clinton just may have been the only American who could have reached that unforgiving crowd. He didn't pander. He made America's case and made it well. Beginning with a sometimes-rueful look at the progress his administration had failed to make and noting that the wars that plague the world are begun by men his own age or older, but paid for in blood by the young, he refused to direct one syllable of blame at the Bush administration. Accepted as a citizen of the world, he spoke as a convinced American. Asked by an eager-to-Bush-bash delegate if he, Bill Clinton, would have behaved differently after 9/11, our former president said he would have followed an identical course, pursuing our enemies into Afghanistan and beyond. Queried about his position on Iraq, he stated that any disagreements he might have would be most appropriately expressed at home in the U.S., not before a foreign audience. He could have made an easy score. Instead, he did the right thing. Clinton has become the perfect statesman. Pulling no punches, he made it clear that Yasser Arafat was responsible for the failure to secure a Palestinian state. He refused to trash Israel. While admitting - calculatedly - that the United States remains imperfect, he used rational self-criticism as a starting point to tell his Middle Eastern listeners they needed to look more critically at themselves. With art and ardor, he scolded the crowd that blaming others for their own failings was useless and destructive - warning that even when others truly are at fault for our misfortunes, wallowing in blame only paralyzes us. Actions, not accusations, change the world. That may sound simple enough, but it's an essential message for the entire Middle East. I know of no one else who could have delivered it so convincingly. Clinton is emerging as a super-charged Jimmy Carter - a far better ex-president than president. He just may have been too intelligent to be an effective executive. A Hamlet, not a Henry V, Clinton saw myriad sides to every issue and postponed critical actions while he debated with himself. By nature a salesman, not a leader, he lacked the guts to act then accept the consequences. But he makes a terrific ambassador. As America pioneers the human future, much of what we must do will excite resentment, fear and envy overseas. A president who's popular abroad is probably failing America. Yet the calls we hear for more effective American "public diplomacy" can't be disregarded: We need to make our nation's case to the skeptical and even the hostile. Bill Clinton is the perfect man for the job. Perhaps we need a division of labor, a good-cop, bad-cop approach, in American foreign policy. While making the hard strategic decisions in Washington, the Bush administration should lose no opportunity to send Clinton to represent us abroad, where the former president excites the sort of irrational, positive feelings people once directed toward JFK. It won't happen in an election year, of course. But employing Bill Clinton on future "missions of persuasion" also might help reduce the enmity between our political parties in the foreign-policy sphere. The administration shouldn't be too proud to ask for the help it needs from Clinton - who clearly misses the buzz and wants to serve. After a weekend of complaining about all things American, that Middle Eastern audience rose to its feet with evangelical enthusiasm - after being told precisely what they did not want to hear by a Scripture-quoting former president. It was the famous Clinton magic. It failed us in the White House, but may have found its proper stage in the world beyond our shores. Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and a regular Post contributor. NEW YORK POST is a registered trademark of NYP Holdings, Inc. NYPOST.COM, NYPOSTONLINE.COM, and NEWYORKPOST.COM are trademarks of NYP Holdings, Inc. Copyright 2003 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.