US Foreign Policy: Post-Cold War world defeats Clinton: As President prepares to travel to Europe for D-Day ceremony, 'Independent' writers assess his track record

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton sounded aggrieved last week as he attacked critics of his foreign policy for advancing 'simplistic ideas that sound good on bumper stickers but that would have tragic consequences'. He could also have defended his foreign policy by making the embarrassing admission that, after 18 months in office, it differs little from that of President George Bush. On Russia, China, Bosnia, Iraq, Nafta and human rights, Mr Clinton has done nothing new.

Why, then, has he got such a bad press? Only on Somalia and Haiti did he seriously modify Mr Bush's approach. Yet polls show that for the first time most Americans disapprove of his handling of foreign affairs. Abroad foreign commentators are derisive of the Administration's maladroitness.

Mr Bush spelled out the allegation earlier this month. He said: 'Our leadership around the world is being eroded by a stop-and-start policy of hesitancy.' After victory in the Cold War in 1989 and over Iraq in 1991, American wishes have been successfuly challenged by Bosnian Serbs, Somali warlords and Haitian generals.

Mr Clinton changed so little in American foreign policy when he came into office that the real failure must be in the policy itself and not primarily in the men implementing it. The real lesson is that the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived American leaders of a credible external threat to mobilise opinion at home, and allies abroad.

A poll last month showed that just three per cent of Americans think foreign affairs are the country's most important problem. Some 51 per cent give priority to crime, drugs and violence, 44 per cent say other social problems and 35 per cent the economy. Only against Iraq is there any support for military intervention.

There is more here than neo-isolationism. Michael Clough, Senior Fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, argues in Foreign Affairs magazine that the foreign policy establishment which held sway from Pearl Harbour in 1941 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 'is losing both its bearings and its sway'.

For 50 years, writes Mr Clough, the 'most reliable, the fastest and often the only way to become a player in the national foreign policy debate was to locate oneself along the Harvard-Manhattan- Foggy Bottom corridor'. The Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Washington with its international and Atlanticist traditions contained all the main foreign policy institutions as well as the New York Times and the three networks.

Battered and divided by the Vietnam war, the foreign policy establishment still displaced the earlier and longer American tradition of 'no entangling alliances'. But the defeat of Communism meant it lost the prime justification for its existence. Washington is now full of institutions which do not know what they are meant to do.

The Pentagon has dealt with the problem by refusing to acknowledge that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. Although scaling down its numbers, the Defense Department is still procuring weapons like the F-18E aircraft and the Seawolf submarine geared to meet the next generation of Soviet weapons. It has steadfastly objected to getting involved in small wars, like Bosnia and Haiti, which are the only ones which it is likely to be called upon to fight.

Here again Mr Clinton has introduced very little change. During the presidential election campaign he steered debate away from defence cuts. His clash with the armed forces over ending the ban on homosexuals reduced the White House's already minimal appetite for any confrontation with the Pentagon. His first Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, was deeply unpopular with the generals who feared him as an agent of change. By firing him, Mr Clinton showed the Chiefs of Staff that they were safe from reform.

Mr Clinton clearly has failings as a leader which have made some of his troubles worse. He tends to talk tough and then retreat when confronted. In Haiti the leader of the paramilitary thugs demonstrating against the landing of the USS Harlan County with American military training personnel on board said: 'My people kept on wanting to run away. But I took the gamble and urged them to stay. Then the Americans pulled out] We were astonished.'

It is not that Mr Clinton does not devote enough time to foreign policy. His faults abroad are much the same as those at home - he tries to know too many details and becomes absorbed in tactics. By always backing away from a fight, he gives an impression of weakness.

Some of this is political calculation. Members of the foreign policy establishment may call on him to intervene in Bosnia and elsewhere. But Mr Clinton knows that the central message of the 1992 election was that George Bush's victory in the Gulf war did not translate into votes. White House aides dream of replacing Secretary of State Warren Christopher with somebody like Colin Powell who would carry more conviction on television and before Congress, but this might not be the quick-fix they imagine.

A problem is that the State Department and Pentagon have never been very successful at small wars. Disaster in Somalia in 1993 was almost an exact rerun of defeat in Lebanon ten years before. In both cases an avowedly humanitarian mission became an effort to become the predominant power in alliance with a domestic faction. US commanders behaved with extraordinary arrogance and lack of understanding of how local people would react to the use of mass firepower against them. As a result 242 Marines were blown up in Beirut and 18 US Rangers killed in Mogadishu.

Personal criticism of President Clinton, Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Tony Lake may be well merited but it also diverts attention from what is wrong with American foreign policy as a whole. None of their critics, while accusing them of a failure of nerve, has been able to produce a credible alternative policy towards Russia, Bosnia, China or Haiti.

The real problem for Mr Clinton is that he cannot admit that the end of the Soviet Union also ended America's position as a superpower. There was always more to this than a large arsenal of nuclear and conventional weapons. US authority over its allies required an external threat in the shape of Communism. This also provided the cement to hold together differing US interests and institutions behind a common foreign policy. As Colin Powell said: 'I'm running out of demons - I'm down to Fidel Castro and Kim Il Sung.'

Last May, Peter Tarnoff, number three at the State Department, did speak of the diminished US role in the post-Cold War world and was immediately slapped down as selling America short by, among others, Warren Christopher. Many Americans remain mystified about why their apparent military might does not translate into political predominance in the world.

They blame Mr Clinton and believe the setbacks of the last year are the result of his personal defects. He opens himself up to attack by speaking as if he led a superpower capable of formulating and carrying out policies unilaterally but knowing that in practice his options are much more limited. He cannot act without support from voters at home and allies abroad. If there is a crisis in American foreign policy it is because Americans have not adjusted to the post-Cold War world, and not because Mr Clinton is a wimp.

Leading article, page 11

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