Right now, the White House's political influence abroad is at a 50-year low. Post-Cold War Europe has less need of American help, and Asia, in the midst of a terrifying financial crisis, pays more attention to American moneymen than to American politicians.
Washington's own short attention span for African and Latin American issues (about 10 minutes) limits its role there.
But the Middle East is different. It is less important than any of the other regions in terms of population, wealth and resources, but the close American links to Israel plus the long-running psychodramas with Iraq and Iran give the Middle East a huge emotional importance in American politics. This is where Gore could make a real splash.
After the gulf war in 1991, the United States was the sole and undisputed great power in the whole region, with huge influence in every state except Iran. The steep fall in American influence since then is mostly due to Clinton's paralysis on the core issue of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. If Gore were to take a different line on that, it could all come back very fast.
Gore's first post-Clinton decision would not be on Arab-Israeli affairs, however, but on Iraq. At the moment it's all still bluff and bluster: (There was Bill Clinton on television last week warning Americans: ``Think how many people can be killed by just a tiny bit of anthrax.'')
If you can't win the argument, change the subject. But whereas Zippergate protects Saddam Hussein, Al Gore could order the same strikes against Iraq and reap enormous political credit domestically. Nor would he necessarily pay a big price elsewhere.
At the moment, a U.S. strike against Saddam Hussein's ``presidential compounds,'' the eight sites containing hundreds of buildings that Saddam has declared off-limits to United Nations inspection teams seeking his biological weapons production and storage facilities, would meet with almost universal condemnation.
But if a newly elevated Al Gore ordered the same strikes, and accompanied them with hints of a harder line against Israel and a softer one on Iran, the reaction in the Middle East would be very different. Nobody in the region really loves Saddam Hussein.
Could a Gore administration take the risk of reconciliation with Iran? More importantly, could Gore do what Clinton never dared, and bring real political pressure on Israel to honor its agreement with the Palestinians? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so brazenly contemptuous of Clinton that he spent most of his recent visit to the United States patronizing extreme right-wing talks shows that have made a career of slandering the beleaguered president, but it was never clear whether Clinton's timidity was wholly rational.
Most American Jews vote, and most of them vote Democratic, so it is certainly important for a Democratic presidential candidate not to alienate them. Increasingly, the political action committees and other fund-raising bodies within the Jewish community have come under the influence of hard-line ultra-Zionists who back Netanyahu all the way, and they scared the pants off Clinton.
But there is a gulf between these PACs and mainstream opinion among American Jews, which is deeply concerned about where Netanyahu's militant policies are taking Israel. An adroit political operator could exploit that gulf to fashion a new American strategy in the Middle East, and build himself an impressive reputation as a peacemaker in the process.
There is some doubt whether Al Gore could be that man. Adroit political operator is not the phrase that springs to mind when his name comes up. But Bill Clinton's early departure from the scene would change everything in the Middle East - and the first person to feel the effect of the change would certainly be Saddam Hussein.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian.