Editor’s note: This piece by Peter W. Rodman appeared in the Nov. 22, 1999, issue of National Review. Rodman, a former senior editor of National Review and senior Defense Department official, passed away Saturday after a fight with leukemia.
After the Senate’s humiliating defeat of his Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last month, President Clinton unleashed a torrent of abuse at the Republicans: “Isolationist,” “reckless,” “partisan,” “inexcusable,” etc. Yet the president’s bitterness may have come from a glimmer of recognition that what he was really facing was not an attack by Republican barbarians but the collapse of his own foreign policy. In this field, as in others, his is a failed presidency. If there has been any weakening of American internationalism in the past seven years, it is Clinton’s own handiwork.
Take arms control. Clinton seems to have patented a new diplomatic style, one that could be called the “kamikaze arms-control negotiation.” Since Wilson and Versailles, presidents have absorbed the lesson that treaties had a better chance of ratification if the Senate is consulted and its views given weight — so that a treaty, once concluded, has a bipartisan provenance. All the successful arms-control agreements in the last 30 years have benefited from this; even the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention was approved largely because the concept had originated in the Reagan administration.
The comprehensive test ban, by contrast, was an idea rejected as a matter of principle by all Republican administrations in the last 30 years as unverifiable and harmful to the U.S. nuclear deterrent. What could have been in Clinton’s mind, therefore, when he plunged ahead without serious Senate consultation, knowing the treaty had little chance of Republican support? Did he want a political issue, with which to hammer the Republicans, more than he wanted the treaty?
This is an important question because Clinton is charging down the same road in negotiations with the Russians on strategic weapons and missile defenses. Required by law to make a decision next year on deployment of missile defenses, the Clintonites are desperate for “permission” from the Russians the Russians, in the form of an amendment to the 1972 ABM Treaty. To entice Moscow, they are offering 1) dangerously low ceilings on strategic offensive weapons, 2) a very restrictive definition of the defenses we might employ, and 3) other sweeteners, such as financing for new ABM radars in Siberia. The Russians haven’t yet bitten. But one thing is certain: Such an agreement, if reached, would be defeated in the Senate even more overwhelmingly than the test-ban treaty.
Arms control is, of course, of value — when properly done. Done naively, or, as the Clintonites have done it, in a politicized manner, it cannot win a true domestic consensus. The cause of arms control may survive, in some form, under future presidents, but it has been badly wounded. This is Bill Clinton’s own doing.
Then there is the United Nations. This is another issue about which the administration has lately been lambasting the “isolationist” Congress. The fact that the United States is about $1 billion in arrears in paying its share of U.N. peacekeeping costs may be an embarrassment, but the U.N. is hardly the centerpiece of American national-security policy; if the administration really thinks it is, this is more a reflection of the Clintonites’ flawed understanding than of any supposed shortcoming of Congress.