Clinton’s Sad Foreign Policy Legacy

Madeleine Albright, as Agence France-Presse recently reported, closed out her final mission abroad in style. The comfortable converted Boeing 757 used by the Secretary of State for trips abroad, on which la Albright has logged almost a million miles in four years, was stocked with fine champagne and French cheeses for the final Albright trip from Europe – another one of those foreign-minister shindigs – to the United States.

Maddie showed off a gift from French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, a rare 1839 edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. If only one might hope that she would read it with even a modicum of comprehension. But that’s unlikely. De Tocqueville celebrated (although hardly with blinkered eyes) a hardy frontier democracy that featured self-reliance and placed high value on the notion of minding one’s own business unless one’s neighbor was really in trouble or asked for help. Madame Albright represents a micromanaging empire of the type de Tocqueville feared might develop in America, and one that simply can’t help sticking its nose into other peoples’ business, not just at home but all around the world.


And the maintenance and development of what is coming to resemble a worldwide nanny state is likely to be Bill Clinton’s legacy in foreign affairs. He had an unparalleled opportunity, coming into office after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of communism as an imperial superpower, to develop policies that would increase American prosperity at home and respect around the world. Instead, he continued and expanded the policies of his predecessors. Thus prosperity is in peril and respect almost nonexistent – although more than a few governments are still willing to have Uncle Sam’s taxpayers and military personnel pay the price and bear the burdens.

When Bill Clinton assumed office a few people hoped that as a member of the generation that opposed the undeclared Vietnam war – indeed personally protested against it – he might be inclined to rein in the modern tendency of the Imperial Presidency to involve U.S. military forces overseas without bothering to consult Congress, let alone ask it to declare war. Any such hopes were to be bitterly disappointed. As president, Mr. Clinton took unjustified military intervention to new heights or new depths.


Perhaps the most significant foreign-policy legacy of the Clinton era will be the demolition of even the pretense that the United States involves itself in wars only to deter aggression or as a defensive move.

Before Clinton US presidents were generally careful to cast US military action as defensive in nature. Sometimes the protestations were shaky, as with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that, on closer examination, turned out to be a pretext rather than a response to a clear-cut attack.

The Caribbean leaders who ostensibly begged for American intervention in Grenada during the Reagan years sounded coached. But at least there was the appearance of a plea for help from a foreign country in peril.

Before Clinton, American presidents by and large made an effort to appear to be responding to aggression rather than initiating it. In part this was because most Americans like to think their country is a defender of freedom and a responder to aggression rather than an imperialist aggressor, and was designed to hornswoggle the people. But at least most presidents tried to keep up appearances.

President Clinton abandoned almost all pretense to a defensive posture; indeed, some of his foreign attacks could easily be interpreted as cynical "wag the dog" gestures designed to deflect attention from domestic or personal embarrassments.


The missile attacks on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and on targets in Afghanistan in August 1998 were said to be linked to Saudi terrorist Osama Bin laden, who was suspected of orchestrating bombings of US embassies although it turned out the pharmaceutical factory was not a chemical-weapons facility and it is almost certain that Clinton knew this and ordered the attack anyway. Monica Lewinsky testified before a grand jury that day.

So Bill Clinton ordered the cruise missiles to fly. Not only did he hit a pharmaceutical factory that was a major source of medical supplies for the impoverished country of Sudan, he didn’t hit anything resembling an Osama Bin Laden terrorist encampment in Afghanistan. So the attacks were either informed by incredibly incompetent intelligence or were incredibly cynical in nature – or both.


All pretense of defensiveness was scuttled with the December 1998 missile attacks on Iraq. As it became obvious that the House was going to go through with impeachment, the president seized on the fact that Saddam Hussein had kicked UN weapons inspectors out of Iraq two months earlier to launch "Operation Desert Fox," several days of airstrikes against Iraq. In November Clinton had UN support for such strikes, but by December he had none; he did it anyway.

The key factor is that although Saddam was undoubtedly intransigent with UN inspectors, there was no evidence – none – that he had attacked another country or had any near-term intention of doing so, as was at least the case after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. The airstrikes amounted to naked aggression against a country that, while undoubtedly led by a murderous tyrant, had not invaded or threatened its neighbors.


The 1999 air war against Kosovo and Serbia followed the same pattern. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic is a villain, but when Clinton pushed NATO to launch an air war against him he had not invaded or threatened to invade any foreign country. He was putting down a rebellion in Kosovo rather brutally (though not as brutally as NATO propaganda insisted), but Kosovo was recognized by every member of the vaunted "international community" as a province of Yugoslavia. That made the NATO war against Serbia an undeclared (of course) war of aggression.

President Clinton’s interpretation of executive warmaking authority was positively Nixonian in its audacity. He also waged war without congressional approval in Haiti and Bosnia. He insisted that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto global warming treaty were in effect although the Senate declined to ratify either.

Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute has edited a book called The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton that details how these and other activities that are not only beyond the scope of the US Constitution but beyond the scope of existing statutory authority have made a mockery of the very concept of the rule of law, a concept that arguably is the essential underpinning of liberty and of civilization itself.


Will the next administration be more restrained in making war? Reading some of the near-hysterical assessments of Colin Powell’s policies and doctrines from people like the New Republic’s Lawrence Kaplan, one is tempted to hope that he will be the neo-isolationist some fear. But I’m skeptical. Powell is unlikely to be quite so eager to indulge in "nation-building" or "humanitarian" interventions as was the Clinton administration or as a Gore administration would have been. But he and most of the Bushies see the United States as an imperial power with essential global "responsibilities" that must be met lest we flunk the test of world leadership.

Will Congress, therefore, move to take back its constitutional power at least to have the final word when it comes to making war? (I’m not so utopian as even to dream of more.) Unfortunately that’s even more doubtful than the prospect that peace in the Middle East will break out next week.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).