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.