The goal may not be realistic, he acknowledged, but he then went on to analyze all the factors in minute detail, as though he were preparing for a political campaign: whether a U.S. president would ever see fit to back him, for one, and what it would take to persuade other nations to bend the long-standing tradition that the top job does not go to someone from a country with permanent status on the U.N. Security Council.
His ambition, as the aide described it, was both breathtaking and entirely logical for a natural-born politician who had reached the top of the American political ladder: "president of the world."
Four years later, say several associates who have spoken with him in recent months, Clinton regards his dream of leading the United Nations as something more than a flight of fancy and something less than a serious prospect. Already, however, he has succeeded to a surprising degree in fashioning his ex-presidency to make himself a dominant player on the world stage.
His ambitions are no less obvious than when he was on the rise as a domestic politician. Clinton wants to present an alternative face of America to the rest of the world -- in implicit opposition to President Bush, and to create a legacy that builds on his eight years in office.
His recent appointment as the U.N. representative on tsunami relief is the highest-profile example of Clinton's travels and activities abroad. The extent to which the 42nd president has preserved influence even after leaving the White House will be far more obvious in September. That is when a large delegation of world leaders, U.S. politicians, business leaders and celebrities of various stripes will arrive in New York for the first Clinton Global Initiative.
The event, as Clinton recently described it, is modeled after the famous annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But Clinton has said he wants his three-day event to be more focused on concrete results. "I'm telling people not to come unless they are prepared to make a commitment to do something when they leave" on the conference's themes of fighting poverty, religious conflict and environmental degradation.
Among those planning to attend are British Prime Minister Tony Blair, King Abdullah of Jordan, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Even Rupert Murdoch, whose New York Post and Fox News network are favorite platforms for many of the harshest Clinton critics, plans to be there.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, also organized his post-presidency around international endeavors. But, as the upcoming meeting illustrates, Clinton's post-presidency is in many ways without precedent.
Carter, whom Clinton has described as the most impressive modern ex-president, eventually won a Nobel Peace Prize, but first he spent several lonely years recovering from his 1980 reelection defeat by toiling in relative obscurity. Much of his work has been in remote Third World villages, with no cameras. Clinton, by contrast, relishes the headlines that invariably follow from his overseas jet-setting. So far this year, he has visited 22 nations and met with more than 30 current or former heads of state.
Aides say Clinton's aim is to use his celebrity and networking talents with heads of state and various other famous and wealthy people on behalf of causes such as clean energy and AIDS relief. His Clinton Foundation, for instance, has negotiated steep discounts with pharmaceutical companies on antiretroviral drugs and is facilitating their delivery to about 110,000 people with AIDS in the developing world, with a goal of reaching 2 million by 2008.
Viewed from a long perspective, Clinton's post-presidential career contains an interesting historical twist. In the early years of his administration, the wide perception was that he was predominantly a domestic president.
The conventional wisdom was never quite accurate. Even in the opening months of his first term in 1993, Clinton routinely huddled late into the evening with his advisers on Russia, which he regarded then as the central foreign policy challenge.
It was true that the world abroad was a vexation to a young president who aides said regarded foreign policy as a kind of priesthood, and who had not learned to trust his instincts. The years 1993 and 1994 produced a parade of painful episodes abroad. There was the debacle of a peace mission gone awry in Somalia, two years of hand-wringing over ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, an averted gaze from a genocide that killed 800,000 in Rwanda. Clinton has called failing to act in Rwanda his greatest regret as president.
But, starting with the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war in 1995, Clinton began gaining confidence in foreign policy. His signal insight, as veterans of his administration describe it, was the realization that foreign policy was not in the end so different from the subject he knew best, domestic politics. As Clinton saw it, both involved public salesmanship and required leaders who could frame issues to make difficult decisions -- such as persuading people to accept a peace accord with historic enemies -- politically possible.
Beneath the surface, there is a deep vein of politics in Clinton's international activities as ex-president. While he has mostly supported Bush on the Iraq war -- and says that all Democrats should be supporting full victory even if they first opposed the war -- almost every speech he has given in recent months has contained the same refrain, delivered in nearly identical language.
"We can't relate to the rest of the world only through a negative prism, and only through telling them to do things," he told the Chamber of Commerce in Lancaster, Pa. "Why? Because if you live in a world where you can't kill, jail or occupy all your enemies, security will never be enough. You've got to make a world where you've got more friends and fewer enemies, where you make partners."
The veiled criticism of Bush is unmistakable. Clinton, associates say, thinks Bush has weakened U.S. standing in the world by being too dismissive of allies and projecting an image of American arrogance abroad. Bush says he welcomes allies but will not let dissenters abroad stop him from doing what he thinks is necessary to protect security.
For all the new rapport in the Bush-Clinton relationship -- Bush throwing regular rhetorical bouquets to his predecessor and assigning him to visit tsunami-stricken areas -- the two presidents represent twin poles in a pointed ideological debate. Since Sept. 11, 2001, has been at the center of national politics, this argument about the relative balance of force vs. persuasion in U.S. foreign policy has been at the middle of domestic politics.
The debate is reflected in the records of both Clinton and Bush. Many of Clinton's foreign policy achievements were rooted in the America-as-friend philosophy he espouses now. He expanded the NATO alliance and sought to use his rapport with the erratic Boris Yeltsin to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia -- efforts that paid dividends when Moscow helped the United States resolve ethnic conflicts in the Balkans by sending peacekeepers to Bosnia in 1995 and intervening to force a capitulation by Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo war.
One of the guiding principles of Bush's foreign policy was that his predecessor was possessed of a naive worldview. As Bush and his lieutenants see it, Clinton's attempts to coax the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to a peace deal with Israel were folly, while he did not do enough to confront rising threats from Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Clinton also was criticized for passivity in running his government -- including on issues of terrorism. He was not on speaking terms with then- FBI director Louis J. Freeh, whom he appointed. The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks found that Clinton and his top aides thought they had ordered that Osama bin Laden could be killed if there was an opportunity to do so in a covert mission, but that the White House expressed its preference with so many cautionary notes that the CIA believed it did not have permission.
Richard A. Clarke, a former anti-terrorism official who served under Clinton and in both Bush administrations, recalled that "Clinton would make requests, and just assume that these were being done, or that the people around him knew best." He said Clinton should have fired Freeh rather than tolerate a dysfunctional relationship with an essential national security official.
While the debate continues about Clinton's record as president, his activities as ex-president suggest a man who sees redemptive possibilities on the world stage. Even while president, amid the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, he described Middle East talks as part of "my personal journey of atonement." One of the people helping Clinton raise money for tsunami relief is former White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles. He told associates that he was so appalled by Clinton's behavior during the scandal that their nearly fraternal relationship for a time became coolly correct, confined to business.
The role of Ira Magaziner also reflects the theme of second chances. He was famous as the policy architect of the 1993-1994 health care initiative, one of Clinton's most extravagant failures. These days, Magaziner is working nearly full time on the Clinton Foundation's policy programs. He said Clinton has a stature that allows him to draw attention to AIDS treatment and issues that most people never could.
"Some of the problems that have bedeviled him at home and made him controversial don't really exist abroad," Magaziner said. "My sense is he wants to make his ex-presidency one where he has really major accomplishments in the world."
In the United States, the debate over Bush's approach to the world and Clinton's -- between force and persuasion -- remains unsettled. But it seems apparent which approach is more winning abroad. While Bush has generated deep suspicion, especially in Western Europe, Clinton is highly popular, European commentators said.
Europeans who chafe at Bush respond to Clinton's "inclusive, soft-toned way of communicating with the world, and especially with Europeans," said Arnout Brouwers, a prominent Dutch editor who has studied American politics in Washington with the German Marshall Fund. "His personal history, his charms, even his personal failings, helped people identify with him as 'one of us.' "
Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, a friend of Clinton's, agreed. "The reason Bill Clinton is popular in Europe is very simple: He just is. He is a man of great charisma," Kohl said in a brief interview after a meeting with Bush in Washington.
Asked about Clinton's dream of heading the United Nations, Kohl said: "I do not know if Bill wishes to go to the United Nations. If he wants, I would support him."