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Clinton says U.S. should improve damaged image

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Former President Bill Clinton told a crowd of nearly 5,000 people at the University of Minnesota that the U.S. knows how to help other countries, and will be rewarded for its efforts. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Former President Bill Clinton said the U.S. needs to prepare for a time when American is no longer the only superpower. Clinton spoke at the University of Minnesota, as part of the 25th anniversary of the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series. He said the nation should do more to improve its damaged image in the world.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Since leaving the White House, Clinton has spent much of his time on global humanitarian work. His speech focused on the idea of "interdependence," that the U.S. and other countries are tied together by their economies and security interests.

Clinton told a crowd of nearly 5,000 people that the U.S. knows how to help other countries, and will be rewarded for its efforts.

He said the U.S. approval rating went up dramatically in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, after the tsunami, when American humanitarian efforts created goodwill. At the same time, he said, Osama bin Laden's approval ratings plunged, because al-Qaida didn't do anything to help the tsunami victims.

"They saw us not dropping bombs, but dropping food and ropes to rescue people," Clinton said. "The same thing has happened in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan, where there's an even tougher, more militant, more anti-American Muslim majority that has often been identified with the Taliban and with bin Laden's crowd in Afghanistan."

We should be trying to build a world, at this unique moment in history, that we would like to live in when we're not the only big dog on the block.
- Former President Bill Clinton

But while humanitarian actions have helped the nation's image, Clinton said the Bush administration's foreign policy has alienated much of the world. He criticized the administration for refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which caps greenhouse gas emissions, and for pursuing military action with little consultation from allies.

Clinton said the U.S. can't kill or jail all of its enemies, and should work to create more partners and fewer foes. He said once China and India become as prosperous as the U.S., they will determine whether America remains the only superpower.

"We should be trying to build a world, at this unique moment in history, that we would like to live in when we're not the only big dog on the block," Clinton said.

Clinton said he disagreed with President Bush's decision to invade Iraq before weapons inspectors had finished their work. But he agrees with Bush now that the U.S. should not withdraw from Iraq at this point.

"Let's wait until the elections, see what the composition of the new government is, assess the chances of keeping the country together and then make a decision," Clinton said. "And if at all possible, announce both a drawdown and a kind of reconfiguration of the forces in a way that will make them less subject to resentment and more likely to succeed."

Clinton also touched on domestic issues, from health care to taxes. He blasted the Bush administration for cutting taxes for the wealthy, and used his own situation to illustrate his point.

Clinton says he's become relatively affluent since leaving office. He normally commands a six-figure speaking fee, although he didn't charge the University of Minnesota. Clinton said he's received five tax cuts since President Bush was elected, yet the nation continue to borrow money to fund the war and other efforts to fight terrorism.

"We can go forward together, but not if people like me demand a free ride, while we send the children of middle-class America and poor America around the world to put their lives in danger and refuse to pay for it. That's wrong. It's just wrong!" said Clinton.

Clinton brought up his failed attempt to reform the nation's health care system, and said it's clear that reform is still needed. He noted that the U.S. spends more money on health care, and on prescription drugs in particular, than any other country in the world.

Clinton criticized the law creating a Medicare drug benefit for prohibiting the government from negotiating cheaper prices.

Clinton also entertained the crowd with personal anecdotes and jokes. When asked whether the nation is ready for a woman president, he joked that it depends on the ratings of "Commander in Chief," the television show starring Geena Davis as president. He said he doesn't know whether his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, will run for president in 2008.

"In my family, we don't talk about anything but the next election," Clinton said. "Another one of my rules of politics is, don't look past the next election, or you may not get to the next election."

Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for reelection to her Senate seat next year.

Clinton also told the crowd not to get discouraged if they don't like the outcome of an election, and to continue to stay politically active.

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