The apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process has reignited criticism of Bill Clinton’s handling of foreign policy. The president has been repeatedly accused of squandering opportunities and failing to lead. But this assessment is wrong.
Critics have exaggerated and distorted Clinton’s foreign-policy failings while ignoring his successes. They also seem not to understand how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War and how profoundly this has affected the way U.S. foreign policy is made.
Consider the criticisms, then the evidence.
Count 1: Clinton has transformed the United States into a global social worker by promiscuously threatening and using force in Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti and other places far removed from U.S. interests.
Quite the contrary, Clinton has been highly discriminating—perhaps too much so. Other than Somalia (a commitment inherited from the Bush administration), he has threatened and used force only in areas of real strategic concern: in the Persian Gulf against Iraq, in Europe against Serbia and its Bosnian allies, in Asia to deter Chinese threats against Taiwan and in the Caribbean against a dictatorial regime in Haiti. Despite considerable provocation, the United States did not intervene in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Congo or East Timor, to name just a few of the world’s trouble spots.
Clinton’s critics complain that the U.S. military is overextended, but virtually every major U.S. military deployment overseas predates his presidency. The U.S. now deploys substantial forces in Germany, Japan, Korea, the Pacific, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. Only the last is a new commitment, and it is also the smallest. The 10,000 U.S. soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo today represent less than 1% of U.S. military personnel, and only a small fraction (less than 20%) of the overall NATO commitment to the region. Surely, this hardly qualifies as an overcommitment of U.S. military forces.
As for the charge that the United States is doing global social work, why shouldn’t the U.S. work to protect and promote American values? Texas Gov. George W. Bush has said that “the choice between American ideals and American interests—between who we are and how we act—is a false one.” When U.S. troops join others in intervening in the Balkans and other post-Cold War trouble spots, they do so not just to protect U.S. interests but also to right terrible wrongs that affront America’s values.
Count 2: Clinton has forfeited U.S. global leadership by promoting free trade.
Critics rightly point out that many Democrats try to hide behind the “proud tower” of protectionism. But Clinton doesn’t and hasn’t. Rather than pander to the protectionists in his own party, he has used the full powers of his office to win congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and the African and Caribbean Basin trade initiatives. Permanent normal trading relations with China is his latest accomplishment.
True, Clinton failed to persuade Congress to grant him fast-track authority. But the fault here lies as much with Republicans, who insist on rigidly separating trade from labor and environmental issues, as it does with Democrats who fear trade will cost their constituents jobs. No president will get fast-track authority until he can bridge this gap.
Count 3: Clinton has undermined U.S. alliances by alienating our friends.
This claim is no less puzzling for its frequent repetition. It inflates a single incident—Clinton’s decision not to visit Japan or South Korea again upon returning from his one visit to China—into a phony friendship crisis. Clinton expanded, strengthened and revitalized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and led the alliance in its successful use of force in the Balkans. He has consistently supported steps to enhance European unity, for which he became the first U.S. president awarded the Charlemagne Prize. Clinton has updated and reinforced security alliances in Asia, including those with Australia, Japan and South Korea. And notwithstanding the recent surge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, no president has done more for Israel’s security by becoming a crucial partner for peace in the Middle East.
Count 4: Clinton has appeased a rising China and indulged a corrupt Russia.
Clinton acknowledges that he initially mishandled relations with China. But, to his credit, he changed course. His coherent strategy of engagement with Beijing is encouraging China’s internal economic and political transformation. This policy has already produced China’s entry into the WTO on terms highly favorable to the United States. It must be a sensible one, because once you strip the Republican platform of its rhetorical bombast about Beijing being a competitor, both parties have adopted it as their position. Clinton can point to similar successes in dealing with Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all agreed to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union. Washington and Moscow have agreed in principle to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 2,000 to 2,500 warheads apiece, a number once unthinkable. Claims that Clinton should have done more (let alone that he somehow “lost” Russia) omit the fact that during much of his presidency, a physically and politically weakened Boris N. Yeltsin left him without a partner who could deliver.
Count 5: Clinton has no vision and no priorities for a post-Cold War foreign policy.
This is the most serious count in the critics’ indictment, and one that that Clinton supporters sometimes accept. But it’s wrong. A clear, though not always well-articulated vision has guided Clinton’s foreign policy: America’s interests are best served by working to enlarge the community of market democracies. That vision is why Clinton has focused his energies on helping former enemies and others move toward democracy, expanding trade and forcefully resisting states that threaten the march of democratic progress. In a world without overriding threats to U.S. security, no other foreign policy can sustain the support and respect of the American people. To his credit, Clinton has understood this.
Given this list of accomplishments, why is the foreign-policy elite so critical of Clinton? The answer lies in the failure to appreciate how much the world has changed, abroad and at home, since the Cold War. Clinton was the first to discover the paradox of post-Cold War internationalism. Although U.S. power is unparalleled, conducting a successful foreign policy is harder. Not only are problems overseas more complex and less susceptible to U.S. influence, but equally important, the White House faces a crisis in “followership.” The American public has turned its attention to matters at home, freeing members of Congress to take politics beyond the water’s edge. Getting the American public and a recalcitrant, inward-looking and politically polarized Congress to go along requires an immense effort of political persuasion.
It is a testament to Clinton’s leadership skills that he overcame these political head winds on issues like NAFTA, Kosovo and China trade. Perhaps when the next president tries to navigate the increasingly treacherous shoals of U.S. foreign policy, Clinton’s current critics will begin to appreciate how much he accomplished.