The Squandered Presidency: Demanding More from the Commander in Chief

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
May/June 2005
Foreign Affairs

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U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton era was not a disaster. In some respects, it was even a modest success. Not surprisingly, therefore, the basic theme of those who defend the administration—those who give it reserved praise (Stephen M. Walt, “Two Cheers for Clinton’s Foreign Policy,” March/April 2000)—is that the Clinton administration did not upset the pervasive peace and prosperity it began its tenure with. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. Indeed, such a defense of the Clinton era misses the larger point: the overriding theme of recent U.S. foreign policy is underachievement and squandered potential. Like investors crowing about the returns of a money-market fund when they could have been sharing in the greatest bull market in history, Clinton supporters are satisfied, rather than upset, only because they compare their gains to what was, rather than what might have been.

Clinton inherited a world of unprecedented American advantage and opportunity and did little with it. Few relationships or institutions bear his imprint; no consensus exists at home on U.S. purposes in the world or how they should be pursued. Indeed, the measure of Clinton’s tenure is less what he said and did than what he failed to say and failed to do. As a result, he will bequeath his successor a dangerous international situation and a difficult domestic one—situations more dangerous and difficult than those Clinton himself faced and than should have been allowed to develop.

Despite some noteworthy achievements in foreign as well as domestic policy, the Clinton era was marked by a preference for symbolism over substance and short-term crisis management over long-term strategizing. Unlike domestic policy, however, foreign policy suffered from a lack of presidential interest, attention, and respect. It suffered, in short, from malign neglect.

One Cheer…

Several of Clinton’s accomplishments stand out in the economic realm. Clinton inherited agreements largely negotiated by his predecessor, but he still deserves credit for gaining congressional passage (albeit with mostly Republican votes) of both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. In its initial five years, NAFTA contributed to a near doubling in trade volume with America’s two largest trading partners and helped insulate Mexico from what would otherwise have been deep recession and political instability. For its part, the WTO provided a set of rules to govern important areas of world trade and a mechanism for resolving disputes among member countries. The WTO is one reason why world trade volume continued to grow steadily, despite the Asian economic crisis. Other economic achievements include the Clinton administration’s concerted effort to cobble together the coalition of countries, banks, and international financial institutions that rescued Mexico from an economic meltdown in 1994. It should also be praised for its steady hand during the 1998 Asian economic crisis, when it refused to apply proffered cures that would likely have been more harmful than the disease.

Arms control had important milestones as well. Perhaps the most significant achievement was the agreement that ensured Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan would voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons to Russia. The Clinton administration also helped persuade a reluctant Senate to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and put in place a framework with North Korea that deferred and possibly solved the threat posed by its nuclear weapons program.

Finally, significant diplomatic progress was made in both Northern Ireland and the Middle East. In both instances, the bulk of the credit should go to those local leaders who showed courage and flexibility. But the Clinton administration played a crucial role through its sustained and often high-level diplomatic efforts. And the government’s large-scale humanitarian interventions brought some measure of stability—however fleeting or tenuous—to Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

…But No More

These accomplishments, however, do not add up to a foreign policy legacy, because they did not alter the administration’s international environment in basic and lasting ways. A foreign policy legacy can result either from achieving something great on the ground (defeating major rivals or building major institutions, for example) or from changing the way people at home or abroad think about international relations. Clinton did neither. Despite what Walt argues, such an outcome was hardly inevitable. It was a deliberate choice on the part of the president, who was not willing to spend political capital for enduring results.

For instance, for all the administration’s words on international trade, it made no serious effort to expand NAFTA to Chile or elsewhere, or to initiate a new round for the WTO that would cover agriculture or services. And despite knowing that Congress was dubious about extending “fast track” negotiating authority, the administration waited until the last minute to press its case, allowing a crucial tool to slip not just from its own hands but from those of its successors as well. The administration chose to delay bringing China into the WTO and allowed misguided economic sanctions to proliferate. And it conceded so much to its labor and environmental constituencies on trade issues that its rhetoric increasingly echoed the sentiments of WTO critics rather than supporters. Nothing embodies the loss of momentum on trade as much as the December 1999 fiasco in Seattle, which forced the president to acknowledge that protectionist sentiment is stronger now than when he assumed office.

China is a second area where Clinton could have staked a claim to a legacy but failed. He entered office when Sino-American relations were at a low ebb because of the end of the Cold War (which removed the anti-Soviet rationale that had sustained the relationship) and because of the tensions caused by China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. But Clinton never decided how much of a priority to make China, going there only once, six years into his presidency. Nor did he decide which issues mattered most to him—wandering among human rights, trade, Taiwan, and Korea—or how to blend carrots and sticks in his attempts at engagement. China thus oscillated from being portrayed as a human-rights outcast to a would-be strategic partner. The entire Asia-Pacific region grew confused about American intentions. In the end, Clinton forfeited control over the American debate on China and never managed to establish a durable post-Cold War rationale for the relationship.

Unlike China, Russia benefited from the administration’s consistent approach and regular high-level attention. It is legitimate to question whether the approach and attention focused too much on personalities and on trying to steer internal reform within Russia. But however that question is answered, what is certain is that not enough was done to deal with the residue of nuclear competition. The U.S. nuclear posture—on both inventory and policy—resembles nothing so much as its Cold War stance, even though the world is fundamentally different today. Furthermore, the decision to push NATO enlargement brought the administration a symbolic victory at the cost of allowing major difficulties with the alliance’s chief adversary to persist.

On Iraq, the administration’s policy was marked by a confusion of purpose and an inadequacy of means. By late 1998, years of Iraqi refusals to meet U.N. Security Council requirements governing its weapons of mass destruction meant that forceful measures by the United States and its allies were long overdue. Yet instead of attacking Iraq for a purpose—to coerce compliance or even prod Iraqi defense forces to turn on Saddam Hussein—the Clinton administration dropped bombs for an arbitrary period of four days during Operation Desert Fox and then stopped. The result was greater latitude for Saddam to build and hide biological and other weapons without having to worry about credible international monitoring and inspections.

Unlike most of these major relationships, a series of humanitarian interventions in situations where vital U.S. interests were not at stake received extraordinary resources and efforts from the administration. Each crisis may have deserved notice, but as a whole, the operations were not linked by any underlying rationale, nor were they followed through to a successful and sustainable outcome. The administration never made clear why the Somalia mission expanded from narrow humanitarianism to aggressive peacemaking directed at a particular local warlord—nor why, after a single bloody skirmish, the operation was abandoned. The administration never explained why the United States elected to stay out of the Rwandan genocide, or why it believed it could build a new Haiti, or why it stayed out of Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor for as long as it did and then intervened in the way it did. The result is that despite all the activity (and strained defense resources), there are few lasting results. And there is no coherent “Clinton doctrine”—unless that means a willingness to intervene when the domestic political cost of standing aloof exceeds the cost of a carefully staged and limited operation.

No Plum in the Pudding

Clinton may not leave a legacy in foreign affairs, but what he will leave is a void: no clear priorities, no consistency or thoroughness in the implementation of strategies, and no true commitment to building a domestic consensus in support of internationalism.

What accounts for this sorry state of affairs? In part, it reflects the absence of any overarching intellectual framework. The administration’s early experiments—“democratic enlargement” for a goal and “assertive multilateralism” for a strategy—were quickly abandoned, with ad hoc decision-making becoming the norm. Administration supporters speak of the complexity of post-Cold War international relations, the need for flexibility, and so forth, but no such rationalizations can hide the fact that “ad hoc-racy” is no virtue. It provides no basis for the allocation of material resources—whether for defense, intelligence, foreign assistance, or diplomacy—or less tangible factors, such as the time and energy of the president and other senior officials. Only the absence of such a framework could account for the extraordinary attention devoted to such projects as diplomacy in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and military involvement in humanitarian crises, together with the limited effort spent on forging post-Cold War relationships with major powers in a position to affect vital U.S. interests.

Another factor accounting for Clinton’s behavior has been the administration’s profound politicization of foreign affairs. Clinton was hardly the first president to approach foreign policy through a political lens, and he will not be the last. But he did bring this approach to new heights—or depths. Many of Clinton’s major foreign policy decisions can be traced to domestic politics. The fear of domestic political backlash led to the ignominious pullout from Somalia and the refusal to commit ground forces to Kosovo or forces of any sort to Rwanda; a desire to placate organized labor led to the increasing embrace of protectionism; the hope of attracting support from Americans of eastern European descent was a crucial factor behind NATO enlargement; harsh economic sanctions were introduced against Haiti partly to assuage prominent African-American critics of U.S. policy; and U.S. troops were dispatched there when the sanctions contributed to a massive and unpopular influx of refugees into Florida.

Domestic politics and “ad hoc-racy” alone, however, cannot fully explain Clinton’s foreign policy pattern. A final part of the explanation lies in the extraordinarily low status that Clinton accorded international affairs. It is instructive to look at how the president chose to use the bully pulpit during his term in office. Of some 300 Saturday morning radio addresses he has delivered, perhaps 35—less than 12 percent—were devoted to matters of foreign policy and national security. His inaugural and State of the Union addresses display a similar lack of emphasis on foreign policy, as do the administration’s efforts at congressional relations.

The result is that, after two terms in office, Clinton leaves behind not an isolationist America (since isolationists care passionately about having no foreign policy) but an uninterested one. Most Americans are inclined toward internationalism but have little intensity or commitment. As a result, U.S. foreign relations are increasingly influenced by special interests rather than any general interest. And they are increasingly dominated by symbolic gestures—such as economic sanctions or paper commitments—that substitute for the hard work of managing complex relationships, nurturing institutions, and building a support base for necessary but unpopular actions. If the current era of American primacy comes to a premature close and is followed by a time of greater violence and less prosperity, it will be more because of U.S. folly than the rise of a foe.

Giving foreign policy the attention it deserved over the last several years would have required a president willing to invest political capital in the absence of political pressure. With the demise of the Soviet Union, no single force threatened America’s existence or stirred public opinion. Congress was increasingly balkanized—many Democrats were less than convinced about the benefits of free trade, and many Republicans were uninterested in international issues and unwilling to trust a leader from an opposing party. The mass media, meanwhile, devoted less time and space to international issues. Following such trends rather than fighting them was the easiest course—and the one Clinton chose. He gave the American people the foreign policy that polls suggested they wanted—unlike a truly great president, who would have tried to lead them toward the foreign policy they needed.

Read full article at ForeignAffairs.com.

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