Commentary Magazine

Clintonism Abroad

In the weeks just before the November 1994 elections, public-opinion polls registered a slight rebound by the Democrats, although it turned out to be fleeting. The rally tracked a small but noticeable upswing in President Clinton’s popularity, which in turn was traceable to a rise in confidence in his handling of foreign affairs. And indeed, his administration had recently strung together three apparent foreign-policy successes. North Korea had agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. The military rulers of Haiti had given way to an American occupation without firing a shot. And Iraq’s elite forces had reversed their march toward the Kuwaiti border.

Clinton thus discovered, as had so many occupants of the White House before him, that there is nothing like a success abroad to make a President look presidential. For a while there was even talk that in his second two years, Clinton would be the foreign-policy President.

This development is rich in irony. Clinton’s immediate predecessor, George Bush, had been criticized for being overly preoccupied with foreign affairs, and in his race against Clinton he had put it about that, if given a second term, he would become the domestic-policy President. But Clinton had held him at bay, guiding his own campaign with the dictum, “the economy, stupid.” Now, halfway into Clinton’s term, the economy was chugging along at a healthy rate, and Clinton had for two years devoted himself assiduously to his domestic agenda. But the voters seemed quite disillusioned with him. Hence the sudden turn toward world affairs.

To advance this new tack, Clinton embarked on several high-profile visits to foreign countries. But the foreign-policy gambit did not save his party from a stinging defeat in the 1994 election. Nor will it, as now constituted, salvage Clinton’s presidency. For it is not enough for a President to stand at the helm of the ship of state; he must also have a sound set of goals, strategies, and tactics by which to steer it.

In the 1992 campaign and his first months in office, Clinton spoke of a foreign policy based on three pillars: restoring prosperity; modernizing the military; and promoting democracy. But on closer examination, this was less than met the eye. Building prosperity is a goal of every President, and moreover it is mainly an aspect of domestic policy. Listing it as the first pillar of his foreign policy was thus another signal of the primacy Clinton intended to give to domestic affairs. Modernizing the military also turned out to be nothing more than a euphemism for slashing the defense budget in order to free funds for domestic projects. Promoting democracy is a worthy and important goal, but not enough in itself to make a foreign policy—and the steps that would be required to achieve this goal were mostly left vague.

Still, however shaky these pillars, the themes of prosperity and democracy have in fact informed Clinton’s foreign policy on the two issues on which it has shown the most coherence: trade and Russia. Clinton has fought successfully for the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the new GATT treaty; and he has worked to bolster democracy in Russia through foreign and diplomatic aid. Yet in both these areas (as well as in the Arab-Israeli peace process), Clinton’s policies were continuous with those of the Bush administration, and (despite some vocal opposition to NAFTA) they enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress.

Is there, then, anything distinctive about Clinton’s approach to foreign policy? I think there is, and it, too, may be described as resting on three pillars, if not the same ones enunciated in Clinton’s campaign. The first is a kind of general aversion to getting involved in foreign entanglements for fear that they will distract from domestic concerns. The second is a relentless subordination of foreign policy to domestic politics. The third is made up of the remnants of 1970’s liberalism, a set of attitudes and values that has survived the discrediting of a once-confident ideology.



Clinton and his team decry isolationism in their speeches, and over the issue of free trade they have done battle with overt isolationists like the columnist Patrick J. Buchanan. But while pure-and-simple isolationism remains outside today’s political mainstream, a watered-down version holds renewed appeal. It takes the form of a relative lack of interest in foreign policy on the grounds that reforming health care or cutting taxes or investing in domestic programs deserves the lion’s share of our energies, attention, and resources. Bill Clinton has encouraged this spirit, indeed exemplified it.

The Bill Clinton who campaigned on “the economy, stupid,” announced soon after his victory that he intended to “focus like a laser” on economic issues. The implications of this were spelled out, albeit too bluntly for the administration’s liking, in a widely reported news briefing by Peter Tarnoff, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. “We simply don’t have the leverage,” he said, “we don’t have the influence, we don’t have the inclination to use military forces, we certainly don’t have the money” to respond to the kinds of crises that will characterize the post-cold-war era.

Tarnoff’s pronouncement was disowned by the White House, but he was not fired or demoted: all he had done, after all, was to put a gloss of theory on Clinton’s own instincts. As the Bosnia issue grew nettlesome, for example, Clinton declared: “I don’t want to have to spend any more time on that than is absolutely necessary, because what I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems.”

The same thought with a sharper political edge was expressed on another occasion, again by Tarnoff and also Timothy Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, when they apparently assumed they were speaking in private. At a State Department luncheon, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel admonished the two officials about the need for stronger action in Bosnia. While they did not demur from his descriptions of the horrors being perpetrated by the Serbs against the Muslims in Bosnia, Tarnoff replied that unsuccessful involvement there “would destroy the Clinton presidency,” and Wirth honed the point by explaining that any forceful action would endanger “the fragile liberal coalition” that Clinton represented.1

Accordingly, Clinton has sought responses to the Bosnian crisis that would help him avoid or postpone decisive action. First, the administration announced that it was throwing the “weight of American diplomacy” behind the Vance-Owen negotiations. When these foundered on the shoal of Serb intransigence, the administration went through the motions of seeking allied support for military action, but appeared relieved when this was not forthcoming. Clinton then quickly fell in behind a Russian proposal to declare “safe areas” as refuges for Bosnia’s Muslims. At the same time, his administration began to talk down the problem: Bosnia was a “humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent,” said Secretary of State Warren Christopher. As the Serbian war on civilian Sarajevo grew intolerable to American public opinion, however, the administration reengaged, threatening air strikes. Yet over the next year and a half such threats were repeatedly scorned by the Serbs, and not a single earnest strike was ever carried out. Meanwhile, the U.S. joined Russia, Britain, France, and Spain in forming the “contact group” which mapped a proposed settlement and offered it to the parties on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Six months after the Serbs rejected this, the administration tried to use the mediation of Jimmy Carter to inaugurate still another diplomatic round more accommodating to them.



The same penchant for postponement has also guided the administration’s response to the issue of enlarging NATO. When the newly independent states of the former Warsaw Pact—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—sought entry into NATO, the administration was initially sympathetic, but it reversed course when told that this would inflame Russian nationalism, thereby weakening the position of democrats like President Boris Yeltsin.

As an alternative, Clinton invented the “Partnership for Peace,” a new institution open to all the former Communist states (including Russia). This scheme was intended as a means of blunting the drive for NATO expansion, but protests from East European capitals and from their sympathizers in the press and Congress compelled the administration to elaborate procedures by which the Partnership could become a way station on the path to NATO membership. The ultimate outcome has been pushed years into the future.

The same can be said about the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program. Although the President at first said that Pyongyang’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be unacceptable, he backed down when the CIA revealed its assessment that North Korea already had one or two warheads. Instead, he struck a deal with North Korea (initiated by Jimmy Carter) that postpones for five years the fulfillment of its obligation to comply with the rules of the International Atomic Energy Administration, and puts off for ten years the dismantling of its existing, known nuclear weapons facilities.2

Meanwhile, the North Koreans can break out of the deal at any time, or, perhaps more likely, cheat on it piecemeal and then demand new concessions in return for fulfilling prior obligations. Even in the unlikely event that the deal is honored, we have set an ominous precedent by paying a $5-billion bribe (in the form of oil supplies and “peaceful” nuclear reactors) plus diplomatic inducements to a rogue state in exchange for its agreeing to cease flagrant violation of the nuclearnonproliferation regime. The implications mock Clinton’s claim that he has “made nonproliferation one of our nation’s highest priorities.”

Sometimes postponing problems can be harmless or even beneficial, but sometimes it makes them worse, as Clinton demonstrated in his handling of China’s trade status. In the campaign, Clinton had accused Bush of “coddling” China’s dictators, and he supported the efforts of congressional Democrats to link renewal of China’s designation as a Most Favored Nation (MFN) to a reduction of human-rights violations by Beijing. The renewal was due four or five months after Clinton took office, facing him with a conflict between his attachment to free trade and his commitment to promoting democracy.

His solution was to issue an executive order extending MFN for a year but requiring China to demonstrate a better human-rights record in seven specific areas before MFN would be renewed again. Clinton declared his “resolute insistence” on these conditions, but the Chinese volubly asserted their refusal to comply, and Clinton caved in. This humiliation of the U.S. could have been avoided had Clinton resolved the issue, on whatever terms, a year earlier.



Clinton has spoken of the need to “tear down the wall in our thinking between domestic and foreign policy,” and his Secretary of State has said that “President Clinton and I have placed economic policy at the heart of our foreign policy.” But there is something askew about this. Foreign policy may from time to time serve economic goals, but the basic purpose of foreign policy is to preserve our security and freedom—goods for which we must generally spend some of our material wealth. Foreign policy is not a way to make money, but a way to secure things more precious than money.

Sometimes economic interests collide with other goals, as in the issue of MFN for China. In that case, Clinton favored economics so decisively over human rights that Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of the liberal group, Human Rights Watch, commented: “In terms of ‘coddling’ China, he went much farther than President George Bush ever did.”

Clinton’s emphasis on economics has led him to scant not only human rights but also national defense. As a candidate, he had pledged to cut $60 billion over five years from Bush’s projected defense budget (which itself continued a sharp downward trend in real defense spending that began after 1986, the height of the Reagan buildup). Once in office, however, Clinton in his first budget doubled that defense cut to $120 billion in order to achieve deficit reduction while avoiding any net decrease in domestic spending.

The effect has been both to shrink American forces and to lower their readiness for combat. At first the administration announced that it was scaling back forces to levels adequate to fight one-and-a-half wars instead of the previous standard of two wars (for example, in Korea and Iraq). In the face of protests, the administration announced that it was reinstating the two-war standard, but it soon inserted a fudge phrase. The official doctrine now was that we would maintain forces capable of “winning any two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously.” Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch recently made the meaning plain when he confessed that “I hide behind the words ‘nearly simultaneously.’”

As for readiness, in October of last year Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, declared: “The Cassandras attacking our readiness are wrong.” But weeks later the administration acknowledged that, by the Pentagon’s own audit, three of twelve divisions were no longer fully combat-ready. In response to these reports (and perhaps to the November election results), Clinton promised to reinstate $25 billion of the funds he had gouged out of the defense budget. But even this partial restoration was largely notional, since the lion’s share of it was targeted for the years 2000 and 2001.

Beyond subsuming foreign to domestic policy, Clinton has also allowed it to be dictated by domestic politics. How, for example, can his decision to invade Haiti be explained except by reference to the pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus? Clinton justified his action by saying that “when brutality occurs close to our shores it affects our national interest.” But Haiti is no closer than Cuba, nor was its regime more brutal or undemocratic. Nor has it produced more refugees (another issue cited by Clinton). National Security Adviser Lake also argued that “the essential reliability of the United States” was at stake in Haiti, but this concern scarcely influenced Clinton’s policy toward Bosnia, China, or Somalia, where U.S. reliability was more seriously tested.

If the disparate treatment of Haiti and Cuba suggested that Cuban-Americans lacked the clout of the Congressional Black Caucus, this did not mean that they were altogether powerless. Indeed, newspapers reported that Clinton had cultivated a relationship with Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation. No doubt as a result, when Clinton’s budget-writers took an ax to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, they treated broadcasting to Cuba through Radio and TV Marti more gingerly.

Of course, Communism endures in Cuba, not in Europe, and liberating Cuba remains a worthy cause. But Communism also endures in China. Moreover, from the point of view of America’s security interests, Cuba now ranks very low (although not as low as Haiti) while China ranks very high. When Clinton announced his renewal of MFN for China, he declared that to advance the cause of human rights, he was ordering an increase in broadcasts on Radio Free Asia. But he then asked for only $10 million—a sum too small to launch the project, which remains on hold. One big reason to spend three times as much money on broadcasting to Cuba as to China is that Cuban-Americans constitute an organized voting bloc, whereas Chinese-Americans do not.

And where promiscuous ethnic politics goes, can the courting of other demographic groups be far behind? Thus Clinton pushed for admitting homosexuals into the military and women into combat roles. Whatever the merits of these steps, it can hardly be doubted that the motive for them was to please gay and feminist groups, not to improve the nation’s fighting capabilities.



Bill Clinton ran for President as a “new Democrat,” but soon after his election he began to show signs of reverting to his liberal roots.3 To be sure, where foreign and defense policy is concerned, the end of the cold war has blurred the old dividing lines between hawk and dove. Nonetheless, Clinton’s foreign policy has betrayed the earmarks, if not of Left-liberalism, then of left-over liberalism—a congeries of attitudes and values stemming from the mindset that guided the doves of the 1970’s.

I have already touched on the clearest manifestations of this mindset—the lack of sympathy for the military that led Clinton to force it to absorb virtually the full brunt of his budgetary economies as well as to accommodate the gay and feminist agenda. The same lack of sympathy is evident in the demand that the military devote an ever-larger share of its decreasing resources to non-defense tasks like conversion of industries from military to civilian uses and UN peacekeeping.

Not only have Clinton’s actions weakened the military’s force structure, they may also have damaged something more vital but harder to measure: morale. That was the issue behind Senator Jesse Helms’s wildly inappropriate wisecrack that the President would need protection if he visited North Carolina’s military bases.

The awesome juggernaut that America unleashed on Iraq in 1991 was composed of high-tech equipment and high-elan personnel, the fruit of many years of developing an all-volunteer force. But Clinton’s deep budget cuts have squeezed military pay, reduced training, and forced longer tours away from home. This, together with the implicit message Clinton’s policies have sent of a lower regard for the military’s primary purpose (i.e., to fight), may well discourage some prospective recruits from signing up, impel some of the military’s most able personnel to leave, and weaken the spirit of those who remain.

One area of defense spending that has been hit especially hard by Clinton is the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the budget for which has been slashed by more than half. This Reagan-administration project flew in the face of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, which for reasons less than self-evident had become a cherished tenet of liberals. One of their main arguments against the project was that even a 99-percent effective shield against the USSR’s tens of thousands of warheads would still allow hundreds to get through, enough to destroy the U.S. There is, however, no strong argument against SDI in the post-Soviet era, when the threats likely to face America are from accidents, smaller rogue powers, or terrorists.

Clinton’s scanting of SDI matches especially poorly with his handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis. At bottom, he decided he would rather accept a small North Korean nuclear arsenal—and the precedent this would set—than risk a military confrontation with Pyongyang. A case can be made for this choice, but only in conjunction with an all-out effort to develop defenses against such arsenals.



Another vestige of 1970’s liberalism in the Clinton foreign policy is its elevation of the role of the United Nations as an alternative to American power. This approach was spelled out by Clinton’s UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, in a 1993 speech in which she presented the strategy of building up the UN as the middle ground between isolationism and being the world’s policeman:

Between self-absorption, with ruinous consequences for the rest of the world, and hyperactivity with equally ruinous consequences for ourselves and others, there is a third alternative—an alternative that husbands American resources and promotes American and global interests in a just and orderly world. It is called multilateral action. . . . [W]e in the United States must work energetically to strengthen the capacity of the UN and other multilateral organizations to conduct peacekeeping, preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peace enforcement, humanitarian security, and similar operations.

In September of the same year, Clinton said that “UN peacekeeping holds the promise to resolve many of this era’s conflicts.” Six days later a company of U.S. Army Rangers under the UN umbrella was wiped out in Mogadishu, taking the bloom off the rose of what Albright had called “aggressive multilateralism.”

Yet even as the administration has backed away from its earlier lofty pronouncements, it has persevered with a series of measures to augment the UN’s military role. Moreover, in Bosnia, American airmen are still risking their lives day after day in overflights while Washington bows to the UN’s refusal of “permission” to take out the SAM batteries that threaten them. And in Haiti, Clinton sought and received UN Security Council authorization before launching an American invasion while disdaining to ask authorization from the U.S. Congress.

Finally, the administration’s ideological roots were evident in Clinton’s exhortation to the UN General Assembly to “nurture our people and our planet through sustainable development.” Sustainable development is a “buzz word” that is rarely defined, but its apparent meaning is development mitigated by special concern for the environment. The implicit priorities were made clearer in Secretary Christopher’s testimony to the Senate in early 1994:

The administration believes that too little attention has been paid to the interlocking threats of rapid population growth, poverty, and environmental degradation. . . . By increasing funding for population and environmental programs, we promote sustainable development.

In a related indication of priorities, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy and Human Rights—the institutional embodiment of Clinton’s original democracy pillar—was subsumed, along with environmental and population issues, under the aegis of a new Under Secretary for Global Affairs. The man appointed to this post was former Senator Timothy Wirth, famed for his environmental concerns and with little known interest in global democracy.4



What all this adds up to is a foreign policy that has diminished America’s military strength and damaged its credibility. Washington has eaten its words over Bosnia, China, and North Korea—in each case bowing before explicit threats. This demonstration of cowardice cannot be compensated for by the conquest of Haiti, which no one mistakes for an act of bravery.

Surprisingly, some conservatives have taken to applauding Clinton, mistaking his irresolution for prudence, or accepting it as a reasonable facsimile. But they are unlikely to applaud the consequences as the evidence of American irresolution sinks in around the world. That it has already sunk in in Pyongyang was vividly demonstrated by North Korea’s brazen reaction to the accidental intrusion of a U.S. helicopter in December. And sure enough, Washington offered several diplomatic concessions and the equivalent of an apology before the North Koreans released the surviving pilot, whose detention was illegal in the first place.

Irresolution has marred even one of the areas of Clinton’s best performance—relations with Russia. It makes sense to devote funds, attention, and diplomatic perquisites to the goal of strengthening Russia’s democrats in this transitional period. It makes less sense, however, to acquiesce in resurgent Russian imperial aspirations. Yet this is what Washington has done regarding Russian objections to the enlargement of NATO and Russian intervention in republics of the former Soviet Union.

Worst of all has been our legitimation of Russia’s role in Bosnia by first endorsing its “safe-haven” plan and then joining it in the “contact group.” The British diplomat David Owen has spoken of a “balance” between Russian support for the Serbs and American support for the predominantly Muslim Bosnian government. But the symmetry is quite false, equating as it does the aggressor with the victims of aggression. It is said that the Serbs and the Russians are traditional allies, but for roughly the past half-century it is we who have sided with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia against the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. Russian-Serb collaboration, rather, represents a recrudescence of pan-Slavism, that most mischievous invention of old Russian imperialism. It is one of the last directions in which we should encourage post-Soviet Russian policy to head.

Thus far, except for the additional Bosnians who have died and the Chinese dissidents who have suffered the intensified repression that has followed Clinton’s MFN cave-in, the consequences of his irresolution have been modest. But they may not remain so. As Jeane Kirkpatrick has pointed out, while Clinton reaped much credit for facing down Saddam Hussein’s menacing moves toward Kuwait (could George Bush’s successor conceivably have done otherwise?), the real story may be that Clinton’s demonstrations of weakness tempted Saddam to probe in the first place.

Six months after the start of the new administration, Secretary Christopher complained that “When we took office . . . we found the agenda overflowing with crises and potential disasters. A substantial proportion of time and energy have gone to navigating between submerged rocks and whirlpools on every continent.” In truth, however, the Clinton administration inherited the most favorable international environment in at least 60 years. We might say that Clinton has 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.

Can Clinton turn this around in the second half of his term and become the foreign-policy President? It is certainly within his power to stop subordinating foreign policy to domestic policy. But to stop subordinating it to domestic politics, and to jettison the vestiges of 1970’s liberalism that are still so firmly implanted in him, would seem to require that Clinton perform a tougher task than the “reinventing” of government of which he boasts. He will have to reinvent himself.


1 This exchange was reported in a paper written by Richard Johnson, a lower-echelon State Department official who had served as Yugoslavia desk officer and who was present at the lunch. When Johnson's paper was leaked to the press, the Washington Post said that it had found an additional source to corroborate his account of the conversation.

2 A joker in this deck is whether North Korea could have other nuclear facilities of which we are unaware, as Iraq turned out to have.

3 See my “Lament of a Clinton Supporter” in the August 1993 COMMENTARY.

4 The Almanac of American Politics said of then-Senator Wirth in 1990: “The national—or international—issue Wirth is concentrating on is global warming. More than any other Senator, he has been studying the greenhouse effect.”

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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