Politics & Policy

His Own Fault

How Clinton has spoiled internationalism.

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.

Nor is the payment problem even Congress’s fault. What the media have failed to report is that, for the past two years, the Republicans have been offering a compromise on the anti-abortion language that has been a key sticking point. To soften legislation barring U.N. funding for agencies that promote abortion in family-planning programs, Republicans have agreed to presidential-waiver authority in one provision, and watered down the rest so that its practical effects would be minimal. Yet Clinton has been unwilling to meet the Republicans even halfway, refusing to deviate one iota from his maximum pro-abortion position. Apparently he cares more about his feminist constituency than about the United Nations.

An even bigger issue, of course, is the administration’s excessive faith in the U.N., its eagerness to subordinate U.S. national interests to it, and the lack of public support for this “multilateralist” philosophy. The administration thinks, reflexively, in “multilateralist” terms. When 15 Americans were killed in a helicopter collision over Iraq in April 1994, Al Gore paid tribute to “those who died in the service of the United Nations.” Clinton once referred to the “UN’s success” in the Gulf War. Then there is also the astonishing fact that over one-third of all the UN Security Council resolutions since 1945 have occurred during the Clinton administration. This Administration seems uncomfortable expressing itself in foreign policy except in the vocabulary of multilateralism.

Lately, however, this approach has come a cropper. Russian and Chinese obstruction, and occasional mischief by the French, have blocked effective Security Council action on a range of priority issues, from North Korea to Iraq to Kosovo. For an administration worshipful of the UN as the source of legitimacy, this is a profound and anguishing disappointment. For an American public that still clings to old-fashioned notions of American sovereignty and national interest, it only intensifies the disillusionment with the U.N. This too is Bill Clinton’s legacy.

Then there is military intervention. There can be no doubt that the United States must be willing and able to use its military power abroad for important national goals; but the contribution of the Clinton administration has been to squander public support for the whole idea.

The administration came into office believing that traditional strategic challenges no longer existed, and that peacekeeping or other humanitarian endeavors, in collaboration with the “international community,” would henceforth be the primary mission of the American military. Our use of force would only be tainted if a “selfish” national interest were involved.

It soon turned out that the American people had little patience for indiscriminate do-goodism. Peacekeeping in Somalia in 1993 was a costly fiasco. The intervention in Bosnia was a confused mission with an ambiguous outcome (and a seemingly endless commitment). When Haiti was occupied in 1994 to ensure “democracy,” the administration could not risk any kind of vote in Congress to support the mission — because little support existed there. The Bosnia and Kosovo missions also lacked congressional resolutions of endorsement. In conducting the war over Kosovo, remember, the president would not risk a single casualty. Could there be a more damning confession of how thin he knew public support to be? The American people will be gun-shy about intervention for a long time to come. This too is part of Clinton’s legacy.

Finally, consider trade policy. While there are protectionists in both parties, it was the Republicans who carried the NAFTA and WTO votes in Clinton’s first term. But fast-track legislation to facilitate an expansion of free-trade agreements will remain, for the immediate future, comatose. Republicans have tired of carrying so much of the political risk. Clinton’s inability to deliver his own party on the matter of free trade must be counted another failure. His insistence during his first term on the primacy of domestic economic interests, and his continuing heavy political reliance on AFL-CIO muscle, helped produce this problem — yet another Clinton legacy.

Clinton’s successors will have the job of salvaging America’s national-security policy and global leadership from this wreckage. Fortunately, it is not American internationalism but Clinton-style internationalism that lies discredited. The Republicans have a real opportunity to offer a more strategic-minded policy, grounded in the national interest rather than today’s indiscriminate (and ultimately feckless) humanitarianism. A Republican foreign policy based on a concept of national interest can reassure Americans that their leaders are able to tell the difference between what is important for us internationally and what is not.

Clinton is known to disparage this kind of strategic analysis as “Old Think.” For the last seven years we have heard the rhetoric of “democratic enlargement,” of the primacy of economics and domestic concerns, of environmentalism, multilateralism, and humanitarian interventionism. The Clintonites’ aversion to strategic thinking led to a conscious effort to delegitimize it. When assigning blame for the public’s confusion about foreign policy, the president need look no further than his mirror.


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