Clinton saw discretion as better part of policy

In July 1993, President Clinton was in Tokyo attending a G-7 summit when CNN footage of the deadly Serb siege of Sarajevo flashed across his television screen, deeply troubling him.

It was not the first time TV images of the Bosnia conflict had stirred anguish in the new president, who later confided to reporters that he was "very upset by the shelling of Sarajevo."

Often, during morning briefings in the Oval Office, Clinton would wince when Bosnia came up. "There were occasional explosions of anger, for good reason," recalls then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.

In Tokyo, Clinton's gut reaction prompted him to call for bold action in the Balkans. He directed his advisers to lay out US options - including military action - for halting the brutal ethnic cleansing. But before long, the president's anxiety over Bosnia once again gave way to concerns about falling into a foreign quagmire.

The result: No armed intervention occurred at that time. It wasn't until two years later that the United States joined NATO in a two-week campaign of airstrikes that pushed Bosnian Serbs to accept a cease-fire and attend talks in Dayton, Ohio.

"There was a sense of malaise," says Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council (NSC) staff expert in 1995 and 1996 who is now at the Brookings Institution. "A sense that the inability of the United States, this mighty superpower, to deal with the horror in Bosnia was having a detrimental affect on US credibility."

From Bosnia to Haiti, Iraq to Kosovo, Clinton's hesitant use of force is an important yet controversial legacy of his presidency. It speaks to perhaps the central dilemma of American foreign policy in the post-cold-war era: The United States has unrivaled military and economic power, but when should it use it? In short, it has superpower status, but to what end?

For Commander in Chief Clinton in the 1990s, experts and officials say, there was an ongoing tension between the desire to exert influence abroad and the price he was willing to pay.

The "overarching pattern," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., was to limit risks and costs in terms of US "blood and treasure." As a result, "economic sanctions and airstrikes by unmanned cruise missiles have become the preferred tools of US diplomacy."

In terms of numbers, Clinton has ordered American armed involvement in more theaters than any other recent president. In Iraq and Somalia, he continued US engagements begun under the previous administration. He also approved actions in Haiti, Bosnia, the Sudan and Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

And all indications are that the incoming Bush administration considers the Clinton team too activist in its approach to military engagement. The "Powell doctrine," named after Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell, holds that the United States should deploy its military only when its national interests are at stake - and then only with overwhelming force, an all-out plan to win, and a clear exit strategy.

In contrast, the Clinton administration set out few clear guidelines for when to intervene - or when to get out. It adopted what then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright called a "case-by-case" approach, which some experts see as a pragmatic response to a complex world, but others criticize as incoherent and vulnerable to short-term political pressures.

This stirred heated debate both within Clinton's government and the broader foreign-policy community. Genocide and other humanitarian crises - threats not necessarily directly tied to US strategic interests - became possible justifications for US intervention.

But as the terrain for US armed engagement widened, Clinton remained reluctant to use force.

From the beginning, the president, who evaded service in the Vietnam War, showed a discomfort in his role of commander in chief. The failed peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where more than a dozen US Army Rangers were killed in street battles in Mogadishu in 1993, left Clinton even more averse to any risk of American casualties, close advisers say.

Even some of Clinton's supporters voice concern that America has not lived up to its global responsibilities, giving it the reputation of a "hollow hegemon," in the words of Harvard Prof. Samuel Huntington.

"We are in the position of a poker player who has a very large number of chips on the table in front of him, and then does not use them in the game," says Mr. Lake, now a Georgetown University professor. To be relevant to the world and its many internal conflicts, we must be willing, he says, to supply more troops for peacekeeping operations.

Other top Clinton foreign-policy officials agree.

"If I had to sum up my greatest concern about American foreign policy today," UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke told the Financial Times recently, "it's the gap between our rhetoric and our resources."

"We keep proclaiming lofty goals, and then not putting up enough resources to achieve them," says Mr. Holbrooke, who brokered the 1995 Dayton peace accord on Bosnia.

A reluctant commander? President Clinton met with US troops near Urosevac in Kosovo Nov. 23, 1999. While critics take him to task for not acting more decisively, he ordered the armed forces into more theaters than any recent president.

Although advisers say Clinton matured in his military role - growing "more crisp, more confident, more at ease," Lake says - the waffling over when to use force continued. Repeatedly, turning points in conflicts came only belatedly, when the United States threatened to use ground troops.

In Bosnia, Clinton did not make the decisive threat of unilateral US action, including the use of ground troops, until the summer of 1995. By then, the massacres and atrocities were so bad that Clinton political guru Dick Morris urged him to act, since the conflict was starting to damage him politically at home.

There were also complete failures to act, as Clinton later acknowledged, such as in Rwanda, where inter-tribal genocide in 1994 left some 800,000 people dead and drove another 2 million from their homes.

Clinton himself acknowledges thrift in the use of US might abroad, although he casts it in a positive light. In a major foreign policy address at the University of Nebraska last month, Clinton stressed how little America is spending militarily abroad - for a substantial return.

"Right now, at a time when we are the world's only superpower, with the strongest economy in the world, less than 1 in every 800 United Nations peacekeepers is an American - less than 1 in 800. Less than 2 percent of our men and women in uniform are involved in ongoing military operations abroad of any kind," he told the audience.

Ticking off examples of limited US military roles from Bosnia to Ecuador, East Timor to Sierra Leone, Clinton emphasized that "if we're just involved a little bit, we can make a huge difference."

Moreover, he said, "nobody in the world benefits more from stability than we do, nobody. Nobody makes more money out of it - just think about pure, naked self-interest - nobody. And we pay for this peacekeeping ... but we get more than our money's worth out of it."


It was July 1997. President Clinton overlooked a vast, cobblestone square in Warsaw surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering Poles, and welcomed Poland into NATO.

"Never again will your fate be decided by others," Clinton boomed to loud applause. "Thank you, Bill," replied a banner stretched across Castle Square in gratitude for Clinton's push to bring Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the western military alliance by 1999.

Complete with red, white, and blue balloons cascading onto the crowd, the moment was pure Clinton, a mixture of historic drama and campaign-like showmanship.

But beyond the spectacular post-cold-war symbolism, the Warsaw drama confirmed that America was firmly committed to a robust and growing European alliance - a longtime strategic pillar that had fallen into question in the 1990s.

When Clinton took office in 1993, America had just emerged as the lone superpower. Yet many American and foreign experts were predicting a shrinking US presence in the world, following the break-up of the Soviet Union and end of the containment imperative.

Doubts were cast upon the relevance of traditional US military alliances such as NATO, and the stationing of American troops in Europe. Asia was seen as eclipsing Europe in importance to the United States. Lacking a strong enemy to focus on, the American public, as well as Congress, were losing an appetite for costly engagement in international affairs.

Meanwhile, Clinton faced not the New World Order glowingly anticipated by the former Bush administration after the Persian Gulf War, but a world festering with localized chaos - messy internal conflicts fueled by old ethnic, tribal, and religious hatreds - in places few Americans knew or cared much about.

All this, together with a US economy that was in a shaky recovery, raised expectations of an inward-looking Clinton presidency. President Clinton, however, made it clear early on, with a December 1991 speech at Georgetown University, that he believed strongly the US should remain engaged overseas and "lead the world that we have done so much to create."

But Clinton's chief rationale for engagement - now a cliche - was then new: America's need to ride the wave of globalization, or the economic and technological integration of the world. To thrive, Clinton argued, the US must lead efforts to open foreign markets to trade, and promote capitalism and ultimately democracy and human rights. Essentially, the young Arkansas governor who had labored to boost exports there, crafted for America an economics-driven strategy to replace the military-driven foreign policy of the previous 50 years.

It was in pursuing economic goals abroad that Clinton took the greatest risks, and by all accounts was most successful in broadening US influence. In all, he signed some 300 trade agreements, from NAFTA to the World Trade Organization accord, helping promote a US economy where 25 percent of growth is tied to trade. Meanwhile, Washington engaged in the risky bailout of Mexico, and helped contain financial crises in Asia and Russia. It also backed China's entry into the WTO, while pushing for wider market reforms in Russia and China.

While Clinton's drive to open markets has proven a boon for the US economy, it has had only mixed results in achieving his broader goal of expanding democracy.

As a vital corollary to economic engagement, Clinton also moved to keep America strategically strong, by reinforcing and expanding US security and other alliances with Europe and Japan.

"When we took office, we had no more urgent task than to adapt our alliances to a new era," National Security Advisor Samuel Berger said in a Jan. 11 speech. By updating the strategic tie with Japan and revitalizing NATO "from a static cold war alliance to a magnet for new democracies," Mr. Berger said earlier, Washington "saved our alliances from irrelevance."

For example, in April 1995, Washington reaffirmed the US-Japan security treaty, easing Tokyo's worries about the US military presence and ensuring continued American engagement in Asia.

Experts give Clinton high marks for understanding the importance of preserving alliances when there was no clear enemy. "The enlargement of NATO is [Clinton's] most enduring accomplishment and the most effective one," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security advisor for President Carter. "It set in motion a process that is likely to continue."

Above all, Clinton's initiatives on global market opening and trade, combined with the strengthening of alliances, established that for the United States, isolationism is no longer an option.

"Clinton realized that we had entered a new age, the global age, and you could not retreat," says Mr. Daalder. "Globalization will remain a dominant theme in American foreign policy. US engagement with the world will endure. I think [Clinton] has proven beyond any doubt that one cannot disengage from the world."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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