Politics & Policy

Clinton’s Classroom

Bill Clinton was happy to let the U.N. do his job for him.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Jed Babbin’s new book, released today, Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.

“Never apologize, mister. It’s a sign of weakness.”–John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles

A senior Israeli official who is often asked to speak to fledgling American diplomats headed to Arab countries told me one of the main lessons he tries to teach them is to never apologize, because the Arabs consider it a sign of weakness. It’s a lesson that William Jefferson Clinton never learned.

President Clinton had little interest in foreign policy or national defense, and throughout his presidency apologized for one imagined American fault after another. Clinton never understood how the levers of American power could be pulled to move the world. Instead, because he was so uncomfortable in his role, he was content to let others take over for him. In the UN Security Council, and in Kofi Annan, he found men both willing and able to do so, and he chose to let them.

Clinton sent American troops to too many places–in the interest of “peacekeeping”–yet failed to respond with decisive action to direct attacks on Americans, our embassies, and even our naval vessels. His answer to terrorist attacks was to make meaningless cruise missile strikes, and combine them with bracing speeches unconnected to policy.

When policy was important, diplomacy was disconnected, especially in the Middle East, where the Clinton administration seemed to have no clue about the signals it sent. Clinton, for instance, taught Syria that it was possible to treat American threats with casual disregard. When Warren Christopher, then secretary of state, went to Damascus to see Hafez Assad, the Syrian dictator kept him waiting for hours before condescending to meet him. Neither Christopher nor Clinton understood the diplomatic damage done by accepting that insult.

Another example was the Clinton administration’s treatment of Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s prime minister for many years, who had been a faithful ally in maintaining Turkey’s role as a cornerstone of NATO. Our most important Muslim ally, Turkey had stood by us when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Ozal acted quickly, cutting off the Iraqi oil that flowed through Turkish pipelines, while the Arab world refused to act, seeking an “Arab solution.” That hurt Ozal at home, but helped us significantly by cutting off one of Saddam Hussein’s principal cash flows.

When Ozal died, neither Clinton nor Vice President Gore went to the funeral. In contrast, in an administration that really cared about foreign policy, George H. W. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, went to so many funerals that he was labeled “ambassador to the dead.” The Clinton administration’s insult to a crucial ally wasn’t lost on Turkey–or on the rest of the region.

In defense and foreign policy, the Clinton administration gave the appearance that it had no idea what it was doing. Clinton made America’s top defense priority not fighting terrorism, but forcing liberal social experiments on the military. Clinton’s first secretary of defense, former congressman Les Aspin, was an absent-minded professor. As one source who knew him well told me, “Les would walk into every morning meeting and take all of the issues we had decided the day before and toss them up in the air again. Nobody ever knew what the hell was going on, and in truth not much did.”

In the midst of this chaos, Clinton decided to let the UN use American troops again and again, in places where the United States had no national interest. He believed in global “interdependence,” not American sovereignty. He taught the world that America could be a tool of the UN, and that the Security Council held the reins of American power. On September 24, 1996, Clinton told the UN General Assembly:

In this time of challenge and change, the United Nations is more important than ever before, because our world is more interdependent than ever before. Most Americans know this. Unfortunately, some Americans, in their longing to be free of the world’s problems and perhaps to focus more on our own problems, ignore what the United Nations has done, ignore the benefits of cooperation, ignore our own inter-dependence with all of you in charting a better future. They ignore all the United Nations is doing to lift the lives of millions by preserving the peace, vaccinating children, caring for refugees, sharing the blessings of progress around the world. They have made it difficult for the United States to meet its obligations to the United Nations.

And he told the world how America was going to fight terrorism:

The United States is pursuing a three-part strategy against terrorists–abroad, by working more closely than ever with like-minded nations; at home, by giving our law enforcement the toughest counter-terrorism tools available, and by doing all we can to make our airports and the airplanes that link us all together even safer.

There was no hint that American action could take place without UN approval. As Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told me, “We had a president…who really believed that you had to shackle the United States because, after all, if you didn’t it would fight another Vietnam War. The president of the United States was actively involved, as a matter of foreign policy strategy, in shackling and limiting the ability of the United States to act on its own as it perceived its own interest to be.” As Horowitz said, Clinton would “see a problem, talk about it, sign a piece of paper, declare victory, and move on to the next problem, and leave the underlying issues festering.”

From Haiti to Kosovo, American troops were put in the service of the UN, not in the service of the United States. Worst of all was Somalia.

Clinton’s Somalia intervention made almost every conceivable mistake. It followed–almost immediately–the withdrawal of American troops sent there by George H. W. Bush under an earlier UN resolution.

In 1992, after his defeat by Clinton, Bush sent twenty-five thousand American soldiers and Marines to help distribute food to starving Somalis and to protect aid workers from murderous Somali warlords. Bush’s ambassador, Robert Oakley, arranged a cease-fire between the principal warlords, Mohamed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohamed.

The Americans succeeded in calming the situation, their presence sufficient to drive the fighters out of the major city of Mogadishu. UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt wasn’t satisfied, however, and insisted that the Americans disarm the warlords and their troops. Bush refused, and Boutros-Ghali agreed to his demand that a UN force replace the Americans. Maybe it was because Bush knew that Boutros-Ghali had an old personal score to settle with Aideed; Boutros-Ghali had worked against Aideed while serving as an Egyptian diplomat in Siad Barre’s Somalia. Whatever the reason, Bush didn’t allow the UN to take control of American troops or their orders. Most of the Americans were withdrawn by the time the UN forces–a conglomeration of troops from thirty-three countries–took their place. But the UN force, though much larger than the original American troop deployment, proved unable to handle the warlords, and chaos returned. President Clinton sent American troops back to Somalia for a brief and disastrous time.

The Defeat of Task Force Ranger

On the afternoon of October 3, 1993, a U.S. force took off by helicopter to capture Aideed. Major General Jim Garrison, the U.S. Army commander in Somalia, had asked for Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles to bolster the strength of his fighting forces, but was turned down by Les Aspin’s Pentagon. The raiding force–composed of Army Rangers and Delta Force operators–was some of the best we have. A rocket-propelled grenade brought down a Black Hawk helicopter, setting in motion a battle in the streets of Mogadishu that raged through that night and most of the next day. The fight dragged on because Garrison had no tanks or heavy vehicles that could penetrate blocked streets and incessant fire where the helicopter had gone down. Paki-stani and Malaysian troops–who had tanks and armored vehicles–took hours to decide if they would brave the streets of Mogadishu to rescue the trapped Americans.

Eighteen Americans died in the battle and dozens were wounded. Television footage showed a howling mob dragging the body of a dead American soldier through the streets. Two days later, Clinton announced a reinforcement of the Somalia deployment, this time–he said–under American command. He didn’t even know the original force had been under Garrison’s command. Shortly thereafter, Clinton announced that American troops would withdraw from Somalia by March 1994.

Clinton taught terrorists exactly the wrong lesson at Mogadishu, and his feckless policies repeated it, again and again.

What It Means to the Soldier

The day after the battle, my friend Dale McClellan, then a young Navy SEAL operator, landed in Mogadishu. He told me, “They were still washing the blood out of the Humvees when we got there.” Images of American bodies being lugged through the streets were burned into his mind. Then he began learning some of the very hard realities of UN “peacekeeping” in the Clinton administration. Rules of engagement banned any offensive action; the accepted protocol was just to “shoot only if you’re being shot at.”

Spend my life if you have to, but don’t waste it is part of the warrior’s creed. In Somalia, however, lives were spent, but there was no intention of seeing the job through.

“I have a hard time explaining this to my mom,” McClellan told me. “But it means everything to the soldiers, and their families. I talked a lot with the senior enlisted guys and some of our officers while I was in Somalia. They always asked, ‘Why the hell are we here?’ It seemed pointless. We knew the place was going to go back to what it was before we came….Who wants to waste his life on something like that?” He puts it very well: “The least they can do is finish the job we went over there for. We never did that in UN peacekeeping missions. All those men died in Somalia, but what for?” As McClellan sees it, under President Bush, the bond between soldier and president has been restored. “I can go over there [to Iraq or Afghanistan] with a bunch of twenty-two-year-old kids or forty-year-old men, and we’d go with a smile, because there’s a reason to be there. And we’re not leaving until the job is done. That means everything to the men who fight, and the families of the men who die there.”

By teaching the world that the United States would spend the lives of its soldiers pursuing the UN’s interests–not its own–Clinton told our soldiers that their lives were of less value to him than the empty praise he received from Kofi Annan and the UN. He thus broke the bond that American warriors hold most sacred: a commander in chief’s commitment to hold his soldiers’ lives in trust.

Commander in Chief Kofi Annan

In 1995, Clinton–undeterred by the Somalia debacle–deployed American troops under UN command to Macedonia. One of those ordered to go was Specialist Michael New. New had no problem with going to Macedonia, but he had a big problem with the order that every soldier serving under UN command would wear the UN blue helmet, and that the U.S. flag patch on the right shoulder–by tradition, the most important on the uniform–would be removed and replaced by the UN flag, badge, and insignia. The U.S. flag was demoted to the left side. New refused, was court-martialed, and was sentenced to a bad conduct discharge. The court’s choice was either to find New guilty or to find Clinton guilty of wrongly placing U.S. troops under UN command. The rest of the troops complied with the order, but the bitterness over that incident–and the distrust between the commander in chief and the troops–never faded. Clinton’s goal was achieved: America’s subordination to the UN was clear.

Addressing the nation on November 27, 1995, Clinton talked about the UN intervention in Bosnia:

When I took office, some were urging immediate intervention in the conflict. I decided that American ground troops should not fight a war in Bosnia because the United States could not force peace on Bosnia’s warring ethnic groups…. But as months of war turned into years, it became clear that Europe alone could not end the conflict.

Clinton never explained what American interests were implicated in the Bosnian civil war. By the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton had reformed the world’s image of America, and not for the better. There are three lessons he taught the global community:

‐Inflicting only a few casualties on the United States, as in Somalia, can defeat the United States.

These lessons, as the world has discovered since September 11, 2001, are false. One of the principal reasons we face the opposition we do today–in the UN, in Iraq, and in Europe–is that for eight long years, the world was taught to expect that America would subordinate its national interests to some other body, something America has–for almost 228 years–refused to do.

Today, we are paying a huge cost in blood and treasure to make the world unlearn what it was taught in the Clinton years.

NRO contributor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.


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