Doctor without a thesis: Bill Clinton gets an Oxford degree today, but Jonathan Eyal's verdict on his term's work is: a disaster

Jonathan Eyal
Tuesday 07 June 1994 23:02

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's visit to Oxford today is the culmination of a contradiction-filled week. The man who is accused of having studied in England partly to escape military service in Vietnam has returned to Europe to celebrate one of America's biggest military victories. And the student who left Oxford without a degree will today collect an honorary law doctorate. Seldom has such an honour been granted to a man who deserves it so little.

Credibility continues to be a serious problem for the president who smoked pot without inhaling, and who promoted women to prominent positions in his administration only to find himself dogged by allegations of sexual harassment. But nowhere is his credibility problem more apparent than in the conduct of US foreign policy.

As Washington officials frequently point out, devising a strategy to handle the myriad crises in a world devoid of ideological certainties was guaranteed to be a complex process. But it was a challenge the President appeared to relish in the anticipation. Now he bears personal responsibility for the crisis facing America's foreign policy today.

Assured by politicians that the Cold War had been won by the US and God and no one else, Americans felt entitled to have more attention paid to their domestic problems. Few would quibble with the notion that a country which poured billions of dollars of aid into the infrastructure of its allies while leaving the streets of its own cities full of pot-holes had got its priorities seriously wrong. The problem was not the premise, but the way in which it was acted on.

Used judiciously - even sparingly - American power can be multiplied several times over in its effect. The US does not need to be involved in every conflict, but it does need to show leadership in every alliance. The trouble is, Mr Clinton's men believe that US power is a finite commodity which, once spent, cannot be replenished. The result is disaster at every level.

Neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush was particularly gifted intellectually, but both knew how to choose foreign policy teams that commanded respect. Mr Clinton's foreign experts, however, are a bunch of people who strive for excellence through the pursuit of mediocrity. Anthony Lake, the President's national security adviser, seems to assume that a hundred cliches strung together are better than any decisive action; the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, seems to think that putting other leaders to sleep is Washington's new nuclear deterrent, while the UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, a latter-day Miss Jean Brodie, delivers stern lectures and manages to infuriate everyone.

It is tempting to suggest that the President should retire the lot, admit his mistakes and start afresh. This may still happen, and Washington is buzzing with rumours about possible candidates. But restoring Washington's credibility around the world will require a change in emphasis in the White House, not just a reshuffling of the chairs.

The reality is that Mr Clinton's approach to foreign policy issues resembles Mr Bush's attitude to domestic concerns: a lack of interest papered over with the occasional photo opportunity.

Just as Mr Bush hoped to become the 'domestic president' a few months before the 1992 election by having a drink with the common folk in a neighbourhood bar, so Mr Clinton seems to assume that months of neglect and countless unnecessary disputes with allies can be erased with periodic foreign binges.

But the problems cannot be solved this way. Not one of the President's foreign policy team has frequent access to the White House, and he has never kept his promise to hold weekly meetings with them. When confronted with such criticisms, presidential spokesmen recite parrot-fashion the number of visits that he has planned, the length of communiques signed and the number of foreign visitors who have dropped in on Washington. Never mind the quality; feel the quantity.

The administration's approach to every dispute has been the same: it provokes a vast row, then it claims credit for settling it on terms that are virtually indistinguishable from the policy pursued by its predecessors. Trade is a prime example. Having started out by questioning the main assumptions behind the GATT accord and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Washington signed both - but not before alarming its main partners. Mr Clinton picked a fight with Japan, demanding specific quotas on bilateral trade; but after a year of disputes, he accepted a long-term dialogue that he could have had from the beginning.

Something similar happened with policy on China. The President came into office demanding vast improvements in China's human rights record. He even elaborated a set of conditions that Peking would have to meet before China's Most Favoured Nation trading status was renewed. The doddery old men in Peking not only refused to comply, but subjected Mr Christopher to public humiliation. And the result? China's trading status has been renewed, and the conditions have been lifted. Evidently, Chinese co- operation in containing North Korea's nuclear aspirations is required. Since this was always evident, though, what was the point in picking a fight with the Chinese at all?

Nowhere is Mr Clinton's abject failure more apparent than in his attitude towards the Europeans. America's involvement in Europe was justified for more than 40 years, almost exclusively by the need to contain the Soviet threat. But Washington has long-term interests in Europe which have not been diminished by the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Rather than trying to define these interests, however, Mr Clinton heaped abuse on the Europeans over the war in the former Yugoslavia. Like the Europeans, the US believed that stopping the carnage was not worth the life of even one of its soldiers. Unlike the Europeans, though, Mr Clinton continued to pronounce principles which he had no intention of upholding.

The administration spent more than a year advocating air strikes and the lifting of the arms embargo on the Bosnian government. The policies were wrong, but Mr Clinton had a chance to test both. And what happened? Having rammed through Nato a decision on air strikes, American jets dropped a few bombs in Bosnia, the President made a rousing speech to his 'fellow-Americans' and everything went quiet. Then Mr Clinton came around to the view that lifting the arms embargo was not such a good idea after all - but that coincided with the US Congress passing a resolution in line with his original desire. America then brokered an agreement between Croats and Bosnian Muslims which, far from providing the basis for peace, only encouraged the government in Sarajevo to carry on fighting. Mr Clinton seems not to be interested in upholding any principles in the Balkans; he is merely determined that no dirt will stick to him when Bosnia is irrevocably divided.

The President started out with a promise to make the UN the linchpin of world security arrangements. He has even allowed his officials to engage in loose talk about placing US troops under UN command and restructuring the world organisation. The result is that he is accused by right-wingers of abdicating his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, and by left- wingers of failing to support the UN.

The difficulty for Mr Clinton is that both accusations are correct. He managed within a short timespan to discredit America's contribution to the UN. As far as Washington is concerned, the organisation will remain a dustbin for the world's insoluble problems, all of them destined to be tackled without American involvement.

When the presidential party arrived in Italy last week at the start of the D-Day ceremonies, Washington's ambassador to the Vatican said that Mr Christopher could have been the greatest politician in America 'if only he looked like Gregory Peck'. Perhaps this is the best epitaph for the Clinton foreign policy so far: an attention to packaging that ignores the substance.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)

Bryan Appleyard is away.

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