Commentary Magazine


Clinton's Foreign Policy

To the Editor:

Joshua Muravchik [“Clintonism Abroad,” February] deplores President Clinton’s irresolution in matters of foreign policy, citing Bosnia, China, and North Korea as cases in point. True enough, but what Mr. Muravchik scants, in my view, is that the American people at present want to take as few risks abroad as possible (and preferably none) unless they perceive a direct threat to American interests. That is why there has never been any real support for active U.S. involvement in Bosnia, for example, whether under U.S. or UN auspices. Also witness Somalia, where a cluster of casualties brought Bob Dole and other Republicans rushing to the floor to denounce the UN and demand a pull-out. . . .

Whatever the merits or demerits of the administration’s policy, it has to work within the context of what I believe one is justified to call a quasi-isolationist climate. These circumstances should be given due weight in any assessment of its actions.

Allan S. Nanes
Simi Valley, California

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To the Editor:

. . . Joshua Muravchik’s anti-Clinton agenda robs his article of balance and objectivity. Nowhere is it so marked as in the penultimate paragraph accusing Clinton of having

taken a good situation and made the least of it, squandering a time of unparalleled American preeminence that might have been used to bolster our security and improve the prospects of world peace.

For me the jury is still out on Bill Clinton. He inherited one of the worst situations any President has had to contend with. Before the Soviet break-up there was essentially a stand-off between East and West, and the cold-war Presidents, except for the Middle East conflict, could concentrate their energies on thwarting Soviet ambitions. The internecine warfare and nationalistic disputes currently raging worldwide were obscured by the larger confrontation. Nowadays our efforts are, of necessity, diffused, and I defy any would-be American leader to generate a cohesive world strategy. Conservative critics like Mr. Muravchik find it easy to snipe at Clinton as irresolute, but I am inclined to wonder what they would label as resolute, since they are notoriously silent on the thorny foreign-policy problems confronting us. I search in vain for responsible alternatives on their part that a disillusioned American public might applaud.

The truth is that we are simply no longer able to control world events, and will probably never be able to do so again. To put it bluntly, we can no longer afford to attempt such control. The tidal-wave increase in defense spending of the last fifteen years coupled with the rising burden of entitlements has brought our national debt to a point where adding the now rapidly compounding interest consumes two-thirds of our annual revenue, leaving one-third for domestic and foreign-policy needs—precious dollars indeed. And here comes Mr. Muravchik, who would have us spend a good many of these remaining dollars on some vague hopes we can pressure others to yield to our concepts of world order. He must know we have but faint hopes of engineering any permanent solutions to the intractable problems created for us by intractable opponents of this world order, but he wants somebody—I presume with right-wing credentials—to do something. And, of course, to do it resolutely.

We have tried such engineering, including the military option, for decades now, and achieved sorrowfully limited success. Beginning with the Vietnam era our box score in lasting beneficial results around the planet should sober us, and the cost in dollars and young lives should stagger us. But in the world according to Mr. Muravchik, since we are the sole remaining superpower, it is mandatory we make other nations tremble.

In the end I am convinced that nations will have to solve their own problems, and, sadly, many thousands will have to die during the convulsions attending them. If our admonitions, threats, and sanctions ease their convulsions we will perform them in the name of foreign policy; but overt action—ah—! Rereading the late J. William Fulbright might be instructive, particularly his warning as to how previous world powers “lost their preeminence because of a failure to recognize their limitations—the arrogance of power.” His hope was “that this country may learn by the mistakes of its predecessors.”

There is no foreign policy—no economic sanctions—no cajoling—no reasoning—no diplomatic maneuvering—that will deter a rogue nation from evil actions indefinitely. There are infinite ways open to any one of them, given enough economic clout and determination, eventually to develop nuclear weapons. The only defense will be the assured destruction of a nation insane enough to use them.

I for one am happy that Bill Clinton has concentrated less on foreign than on domestic policy. To gain the backing of the electorate on decisions affecting foreign affairs requires setting our economic house in order. If this is isolationism, serve me a big helping.

Stanley P. Kessel
Hollywood, Florida

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Joshua Muravchik Writes:

Allan S. Nanes makes a strong point about the isolationist political climate, which is neatly illustrated by Stanley P. Kessel’s screed. Still, he omits the impact of presidential leadership. Americans follow rather than lead their Presidents into international action. This was true in both world wars, the cold war, Korea, Vietnam, and, most recently, Desert Storm. In the last case, public-opinion polls suggested great reluctance to take forceful action until President Bush rallied the nation to his policy. Although Presidents do not have carte blanche, they are not merely prisoners of the climate of opinion: they have power to influence it. The real question, then, is whether the President has combated or abetted the isolationist mood. Clinton has abetted it by projecting an image of America’s role as being little more than the most generous member of the United Nations, because, as he explained, “We’ve simply got to focus on rebuilding America.”

As Mr. Kessel sees it, Clinton “inherited one of the worst situations” because, before now, other “disputes . . . were obscured by” the cold war. This is akin to saying that a person who has just fought off a life-threatening illness is worse now because he might have to deal with a host of lesser problems that he ignored while his life was in danger.

I have been called many things, but never “notoriously silent.” For Mr. Kessel’s sake, I offer this short list of foreign-policy alternatives to Clinton policies: arm the Bosnian government and support it with air power; cease the search for “moderates” among Islamic extremists and work for the downfall of the regime in Teheran; launch a robust Radio Free Asia to strengthen China’s democrats; lay the groundwork for the use of force to abort Pyongyang’s nuclear program since the current “framework agreement” will surely fail unless the North Korean regime falls; proceed with the expansion of NATO; cease the evisceration of America’s military forces and restore a robust program for defending the country against weapons of mass destruction.

As for defense increases, the only “tidal wave” is Mr. Kessel’s rhetoric, which threatens to submerge the facts. During the fifteen years he refers to, defense spending consumed 5.6 percent of our GDP. During the previous fifteen years it consumed 6.3 percent.

Mr. Kessel scorns the “sorrowfully limited success” of America’s foreign and defense policies. Well, in the cold war, we won a total victory against the most lethal military force ever built without having to fight a frontal war. I only wish my own life consisted of such sorrowfully limited successes.

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