President Clinton’s Foreign Policy

By Sidney Blumenthal

President Clinton lost and then gained his footing in both domestic and foreign policy at roughly the same times. The tracks ran parallel. Just as he had hit a low point with the failure of health care in 1993, he had also reached the nadir in foreign policy with the humiliating retreat of the USS Harlan County from Porrau Prince. Similarly, just as he began to recover at home with the battle over the budget, he also started to gain control internationally, first in Haiti and then in Bosnia.

The situation in Haiti after the withdrawal of the USS Harlan County had continued to be fraught with danger and violence. The military strongmen massacred their countrymen and refused to acknowledge the international opprobrium. Clinton had finally settled on September 19, 1994, as the certain deadline by which time General Raoul Cedras had to leave Haiti and turn it over to its elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A delegation was dispatched to deliver the news: Jimmy Caner, who had contacts in Haiti through his peripatetic peacemaking ventures; former senator Sam Nunn, and the recently retired Colin Powell. They arrived with less than two days to convince General Cedras and his retinue of the President’s seriousness, and Cedras stalled. The deadline passed. The diplomatic trio believed they were on the verge of getting Cedras’s assent when the President called fromWashington to inform them that an armed force of American troops was under way and would shortly land. In total panic, Cedras collapsed and fled into exile. Fifteen thousand troops landed without incident. This turnabout in the Caribbean preceded the midterm elections in theUnited States, and it had no effect on their catastrophic outcome for the Democrats. But the making of Clinton’s recovery in foreign policy was already developing its own momentum, next accelerated by inescapable pressures in Bosnia.


The Serbs were determined that 1995 would be the last year of the war and the effective end of Bosnia as an independent entity. They invaded the so-called safe areas supposedly protected by UNPROFOR and engaged in a concentrated war to eliminate the Bosnian Muslims: a massive ethnic cleansing. Clinton insisted that air strikes should be targeted on the Serb positions. When a few were made in late May, the Serbs held UNPROFOR troops hostage, even chaining some of them to trees and telephone poles. Eventually the troops were released, and the Allied command decided to stop the bombing and issued a statement proclaiming that UNPROFOR would return to “traditional peacekeeping.” Now nothing stood in the way of the Serbs. In July, the Bosnian Serb army, working with the Serbs, captured Srebrenica, a town filled with tens of thousands of refugees from the region. UNPROFOR troops were pushed aside; women and children were bused out; and 7,079 men were systematically killed within a week. This was the greatest act of mass murder in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Clinton angrily demanded that the Allied command adopt a new policy. In August, after the massacre at Srebrenica, UN Ambassador Albright sent him a frank memo that he rook to heart. “Fairly or unfairly, your entire first term is going to be judged by how you deal with Bosnia,” she wrote. (Clinton had also been reading a new book-Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia, which argued that the problems there were caused by Milosevic’s political manipulations—that was a bracing antidote to Robert Kaplan’s fatalistic thesis in Balkan Ghosts.) At the same time, President Jacques Chirac, affronted by the dishonor visited upon the French soldiers in UNPROFOR and the Serbs’ massacres, wondered aloud if there was a true leader in the Western alliance. With U.S. encouragement, the Croat army in August launched an invasion of Serbian Krajina, and NATO began a full-scale bombing operation to drive the Serbs off the hilltops aboveSarajevo, where they were heavily invested.”

Milosevic sued for peace. Clinton sent Richard Holbrooke, a skilled and tough diplomat who was then assistant secretary of state for European affairs, to implement an agreement. Holbrooke was an aggressive player who threw elbows on the field.

At Dayton, Ohio, where the NATO negotiators met with the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians to work out a treaty with Milosevic, Holbrooke succeeded against considerable odds in brokering an agreement. NATO replaced UNPROFOR in the Balkans, and Clinton sent twenty thousand U.S.troops to join its forces there. American public opinion did not favor this commitment, and the House Republican leaders, with the exception of Newt Gingrich, refused to support it. But with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, peace was enforced. Clinton had arrived at a workable, coherent strategy using U.S. leadership to gain Allied cooperation; airpower: an army (largely provided by others, in this case the Croats and the Bosnians); and hard diplomacy. It was a formula that would work again in the Kosovo war.

Various earlier attempts to define Clinton’s foreign policy had fallen flat. Albright had used the term “multilateralism” to describe the Somalia expedition, but although its tragic ending had hardly meant that multilateral cooperation was dead—it was essential to U.S. policy—it was temporarily discredited. National Security Adviser Tony Lake had proposed “neo-Wilsonian internationalism,” an awkward phrase, academic and abstract, that, while seemingly high-minded, failed to explain anything beyond America’s good intentions, a vague aspiration to morality, and U.S.engagement.

The actual difficulties encountered during Clinton’s first term punctured this rhetoric and also provoked dismissive criticism. Michael Mandelbaum, a friend of Clinton’s going back to his days as a Rhodes scholar, when Mandelbaum had been at Cambridge University (he had turned down offers to serve as director of policy planning at the State Department and was a professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies), in early 1996 wrote an influential article in which he said, “President Clinton’s foreign policy, rather than protecting American national interests, has pursued social work worldwide. Three failed interventions in 1993—in Bosnia, in Somalia, and the first try in Haiti illustrate this dramatically…With his domestic policy stalled, Clinton’s opponents may end up painting him what he never wanted to be: a foreign policy president.” Mandelbaum’s disdain expressed the views of a certain slice of elite opinion, but by the time his article appeared it had been outpaced by events. U.S. troops were now patrolling the peace in Bosnia. Still, Clinton’s actions lacked a larger, easily graspable explanation.

In 1993, at the first summit meetings that Clinton had attended of the Group of Seven nations and of the Asian Pacific American Council, other leaders had lectured him about the drag that the U.S. economy was on the rest of the world. By 1996, the turnaround of the U.S. economy and the decline in the federal deficit had silenced those complaints. The platform that prosperity now gave Clinton was global.

And the position of the United Stateswas unique in world history. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, there was no competing power. No European nation equaled theUnited States, nor did the European Union. If anything, the disgraceful behavior of Britain and France in dealing with the Bosnian crisis had made it clear that Europe could not assume military responsibilities without the United States. And in every respect, the power of the United States was greater than any of the empires of the nineteenth century had been, which had competed with each other in a global struggle that was an extension of the European balance of power. And in any case the U.S. wasn’t an empire in the old sense: it was not a mother country with colonies that exported their raw materials to it. Under Clinton, it was a power for free markets, democracy, and development. “Now, at the end of the twentieth century,” Clinton was to say in 1999, “we face a great battle between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration, the forces of globalism versus tribalism, of oppression against empowerment. And the phenomenal explosion of technology, including that of advanced weaponry, might be the servant of either side-or both.” But he had not yet reached that concise, even prophetic formulation.

In thinking about foreign policy, especially after the Bosnian war, I talked about the problem of U.S. power in the post-Cold War world with my friend James Chace, who was writing a biography of Dean Acheson. The architect of U.S. policy after the Second World War as Truman’s secretary of state, Acheson had been, as he entitled his memoir, “present at the creation” of a new global order. Once again, we were at a moment when something new could be created. And again, we had to arrive at policies that fused America’s national values and its interest. In my conversations with James, I hit upon a phrase: the indispensable nation. Only the United States had the power to guarantee global security: without our presence or support, multilateral endeavors would fail. I mentioned the phrase in 1996 first to James Rubin, Albright’s aide, who had been a friend since 1986, when he came to Washington to work at the Arms Control Association and then as an aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Soon, “indispensable nation” began appearing in Secretary Albright’s speeches. (In 2000, the French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine started referring to the United States as the “hyperpower,” by which he meant a United States that, he presumed, would be an overbearing power dictating to others. This French version, more theoretical and with an edge of ironic resentment and hauteur, was a backhanded tribute to the same concept.)

In July 1996, the Khobar Towers, where U.S. armed forces at the Dharhan military base in Saudi Arabia lived, were bombed; nineteen people died. No group claimed responsibility, and the Saudi government blocked FBI men sent to investigate the crime, though years later it conceded that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had been involved. Then in August, on the closing night of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Park, killing two. (The FBI arrested Richard Jewell, a guard who had identified a bag as the bomb and moved people to safety. After a two-month trial by ordeal in the media, Jewell was completely exonerated. Eric Rudolph, an antiabortion terrorist, was eventually charged, but he escaped arrest while Jewell was held.)

Clinton had spoken many times to the country about terrorism. In 1995 he had also discussed it at the General Assembly of the United Nations and in 1996 at the G-7 summit at Lyons, and he had convened a Summit of Peacemakers in Egypt, a meeting of regional and world leaders devoted to counterterrorism and Middle Eastern peace. But the Republican Congress still had not passed crucial pieces of Clinton’s anti-terrorist legislation. So Clinton decided to give another speech about terrorism, a major address on the subject at George Washington University on August 5, 1996. “Fascism and communism may be dead or discredited,” he said, “but the forces of destruction live on.” Terrorists could turn our technology against us: “We must recognize that modern technologies by themselves will not make for us a new world of peace and freedom. Technology can be used for good or evil.” But to eliminate it required U.S. leadership:

The fact is America remains the indispensable nation…There are times when America, and onlyAmerica, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear. Of course, we can’t take on all the world’s burdens. We cannot become its policeman. But where our interests and values demand it, and where we can make a difference, America must act-and lead…

But I want to make it dear to the American people that while we can defeat terrorists, it will be along time before we defeat terrorism. Americawill remain a target because we are uniquely present in the world … And because we are the most open society on Earth….In this fight, as in so many other challenges around the world, American leadership is indispensable.

In his peroration, he called on the country “to stand strong against the moments of terror that would destroy our spirit, to stand for the values that have brought us so many blessings, values that have made us, at this pivotal moment, the indispensable nation.”

“One America” had been Clinton’s assertive answer to the danger of national division after the tragedy of Oklahoma City. “Indispensable nation” was his response to foreign threats after Bosnia and the Khobar Towers bombing. These phrases were not mere slogans. The words mattered. They expressed the mastery the Clinton presidency was exerting over policy and politics. They were ideas that only he could express from his experience in office. And they struck basic chords.



Excerpted from The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal.

Copyright © 2003 by the author and reprinted be permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL is the author of The Clinton Wars. He wrote for The Washington Post andThe New Yorker before serving as assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton from August 1997 until January 2001. His other books include: The Permanent Campaign, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment,and Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War.

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