The Clintonian Legacy

The Clintonian Legacy

Bill Clinton’s foreign policy record, on which his wife is running, was anything but stellar.


That Hillary Clinton has apparently found success in talking tough about foreigners and sinking to Bush-like “politics of fear” only illuminates how little American foreign policy has been seriously debated in the Democratic presidential nominee race, and how little voters know or remember about Bill Clinton’s international legacy.

Against the background of Hillary Clinton’s repeated claims to cosmopolitan experience, her scores of foreign stopovers (not unlike the travels of Laura Bush) and her meetings with a lot of world figures, the record of the 1992-2000 period bears more scrutiny than it is getting, beyond the NAFTA flip-flop. This is nowhere more urgent than in the discussion about how the United States goes about getting back into the world after years of offending friends and enemies alike, and whether the Clintons failed at grasping coming threats to America.

The Clinton record on which Hillary is running is anything but stellar in global or even US security terms. What would become the hallmark political timidity of the Administration was first demonstrated after eighteen American troops were killed in Mogadishu in October 1993 in an ill-fated assault on a Somali warlord. Though that operation was entirely American-planned and led, the Clintons let stand (if not promoted) the isolationist falsehood that the tragedy was the fault of the United Nations, which also had a peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu.

Worse, the Somalia syndrome led to frantic efforts by the Clinton team to prevent any action by the Security Council on Rwanda six months later, action that may have prevented or at least mitigated a looming genocide. Bill Clinton later “apologized” to the Rwandans, but long after hundreds of thousands of people had been slaughtered.

In many ways the 1990s were a wasted decade in international relations. Despite the vice presidency of Al Gore, the United States did not take a lead in global environment policy, and internationalists such as Timothy Wirth, a former Senator and environmentalist who became undersecretary of state for global affairs, were ultimately driven out of the Administration by its unwillingness to take on the blinkered provincials in Congress, epitomized by Senator Jesse Helms.

There were breakthroughs on the Israel-Palestine front, thanks to the steady work of Dennis Ross and others, including Johan Holst, the Norwegian foreign minister who was a driving force in the Oslo accords that led to the 1993 Rose Garden handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. But then the Clinton Administration stepped back and allowed the Israelis to go on building settlements while heaping the blame for the breakdown of progress on Arafat, who had balked at a later agreement with Ehud Barak.

Policies on Iraq were largely on hold through the ’90s, with the UN expected to continue sanctions against Saddam Hussein into perpetuity. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke of “regime change” and Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 that essentially invited the overthrow of Saddam. But as far as actions went, the United States did little but undermine UN inspectors, hem in Secretary General Kofi Annan in his dealing with Iraq and, unfortunately, leave to George W. Bush the job of ridding the Mideast of the Saddam regime. Now Hillary Clinton talks of bringing troops home from Iraq from day one while at the same time (pandering to Israel and sounding like Ahmadinejad in reverse), threatens to wipe Iran off the map.

And where are her ringing endorsements of women’s rights around the world, the subject of a speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995? Many women who applauded her then are very disappointed now.

The Clintonian record on Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan and the defense of the United States itself is both bleak and tragic in the light of what happened after the Clintons had gone from the White House. The trial of Ramzi Yousef, implicated in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, had revealed an Al Qaeda blueprint for strikes against high-value American targets, but the Administration did not act expeditiously to shore up policies and tools at home for dealing with this possibility–or inevitability.

Instead, the Clinton Administration focused on Khartoum, where bin Laden had established a base. He was ultimately chased out of Sudan under US pressure, only to find in a welcome haven in battered, bankrupt Afghanistan, first under the mujahedeen and then the Taliban. One useless US missile attack on an Al Qaeda camp there in 1998 after the bombings of two American embassies in Africa failed to do him any harm. (The United States also hit a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, possibly the wrong target, in an effort to destroy what was believed to be a chemical weapons facility.)

US policy in Afghanistan itself consisted largely of calling the Taliban names because of their treatment of women and refusing to negotiate with even a breakaway faction until the regime turned over bin Laden, a nonstarter. Meanwhile, the UN was able essentially to end opium poppy production for a period, but calls for help in aiding Afghan farmers find alternative livelihoods went unheard until, surprisingly, the new Bush Administration began to consider this early in 2001. Then came 9/11.

In the Balkans, where the Clinton Administration inherited a collection of nasty ethnic wars marked by hugely destructive attacks on towns, mass killing of civilian men and boys and the systematic abuse of women, the United States turned its back on a Bosnian peace agreement negotiated in 1992 by Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen, saying it rewarded aggression, and opted for its own process, the Dayton accords of 1995–after the Srebrenica massacre. In hindsight, historians judge Dayton as at best a partial success that probably left Bosnia weaker.

In 1999, the Clinton Administration did go to war for what was portrayed as a humanitarian cause, over Kosovo. This involved the bombing of Serbia, which was fighting to retain the restive province. Knowing that Russia, as a friend of Serbia, would surely block Security Council action against Belgrade, the US bombing raids on the Serbian capital began without formal international backing, and in the face of the fears of human rights organizations.

This adventure, and the earlier Iraqi Liberation Act, laid much of the groundwork for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, another unilateral war without Security Council backing and therefore without significant international support.

In relations with the United Nations generally, both its member countries and two secretaries general, the Clinton Administration, particularly in its second term, balked at putting into force international agreements that it at least tepidly supported in public. The United States remains the only country apart from Somalia that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, though it was signed by Hillary herself in a photo-op moment.

No political muscle was expended on saving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was ultimately shot down in the Senate. The treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, which David Scheffer, as US ambassador-at-large for war crimes, worked long and hard at getting right, was signed at the very last minute with no intention of trying to ratify it, and the Bush Administration, only a few months later, was effectively able to “unsign” it and toss it into the dustbin.

Administratively, the Clintons (we are now asked to assume that it was both of them) signed off on a reform that took away the independence of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, merging it, as well as the United State Information Agency, into the State Department. Arms control lost an important voice in policymaking. Crucial information services took a hit worldwide, and the United States could not have abandoned an effective public relations tool at a worse time.

In diplomacy, even a veneer of decency and statesmanship can matter. Neither Richard Holbrooke, the author of Dayton, who lost no opportunity to refer to the UN as “deeply flawed” or Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who disposed of Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the most high-handed and thoughtless manner, can lay claim to glory as statesmen. Albright, responding to critics at the UN, reminded everyone that we are the “indispensable nation,” so get over it.

Could there be a subliminal message now in talking tough to foreigners? Is Barack Obama somehow one of them? Patriotic lapel pins are in and substantive discussions about America and the world are not.

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