The current debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy is largely over whether the U.S. should continue its self-anointed role as the policeman of the world, or whether it might be wise for the next administration to put, in the words of Donald J. Trump, “America First.”
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called for a more active U.S. foreign policy. The 2016 election is shaping up to be, among other things, a battle between the inarticulate isolationism of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s liberal interventionism. Hers is an approach which came into vogue during the administration of her husband.
During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton sought to differentiate himself from President George H.W. Bush by sounding “tough” on foreign policy. At the time, Clinton declared that, unlike Bush, he would “not coddle dictators from Baghdad to Beijing.”
Once in office Clinton departed from policies of his predecessor, whose foreign policy was steered by “realists” such as national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James A. Baker. Baker’s judgment that the war in the Balkans did not merit American intervention – “we don’t,” said Baker, “have a dog in this fight,” was emblematic of the administration’s approach, which, despite launching interventions in Iraq and Panama, was for the most part, a cautious one.
Bush outraged New York Times columnist William Safire when he warned of the danger that nationalism poses to regional stability. Speaking in Kiev in 1991, Bush promised that “we will not meddle in your internal affairs.”
“Some people,” he continued, “have urged the United States to choose between supporting President Gorbachev and supporting independence-minded leaders throughout the U.S.S.R. I consider this a false choice.”
Such was Bush’s wariness over riling Russia that, according to the historian Mary Elise Sarotte, Secretary of State Baker (along with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher) “repeatedly affirmed” to the Soviets “that NATO would not move eastward at all.”
Bush decided that it was best not to rub Russia’s diminished fortunes in its face. Not so President Clinton, who vowed “not let the Iron Curtain be replaced with a veil of indifference.” The Clinton team ignored the advice of Senators Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn and Gary Hart and the former Ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, who all urged the administration to reconsider its policy of NATO expansion. Needless to say, predictions that NATO expansion would have dire consequences for U.S.-Russia relations have come to fruition.
Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly in September 1993, President Clinton declared that the U.S. had “the chance to expand the reach of democracy and economic progress across the whole of Europe and to the far reaches of the world.”
At the time, the stars seemed aligned for such a pursuit. In Foreign Affairs, neoconservative writer Charles Krauthammer declared that the end of the Cold War was America’s “unipolar” moment. The pursuit of American global hegemony was not, according to Krauthammer, some “Wilsonian fantasy.” It was, rather, “a matter of sheerest prudence.”
During Clinton’s tenure, the U.S. military was dispatched on ostensibly humanitarian grounds in Somalia (1993), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999). Clinton also directed airstrikes on Sudan in what was said to be an attempt on Osama bin Laden’s life.
Clinton bombed Iraq (1998) over its violations of the NATO enforced no-fly zones. That same year, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law which stipulated that “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
In some ways the now deeply embedded belief in the efficacy and rightness of humanitarian intervention dates back to NATO’s intervention in Bosnia in 1995. The success of the Dayton Accords seemed to cement the idea that America was, after all, the indispensable nation in the minds of the Clinton foreign policy team.
The historian David P. Calleo has observed that while the Clinton administration “had always sported a low-grade Wilsonian rhetoric that implied hegemonic ambitions,” it was only after Dayton that “the policy began to imitate the rhetoric.”
The Clinton administration’s second intervention in the Balkans in 1999, set the template for what George W. Bush attempted in Iraq, and, later, what Barack Obama attempted in Libya. Once again, in the absence of U.N. sanction, Clinton launched a war under humanitarian pretexts. The 77-day aerial bombardment of Serbia carried out by NATO was ostensibly undertaken to prevent what was said to be the looming wholesale slaughter of Albanian Kosovars by Serbian forces.
The intervention in Kosovo not only riled the Russians, it also upset American allies. Shortly before the commencement of hostilities in Kosovo, France’s Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine declared that the United States was not only a superpower, but a “hyper-power.” According to Vedrine, the question of the American hyper-power was “at the center of the world’s current problems.”
Kosovo set a pattern that has held in subsequent interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Advertised (all, or, in part) as interventions on behalf of suffering Muslims, they invariably end up strengthening the hand of those who are declared enemies of the U.S.: Sunni Islamic extremists.
By the end of Bill Clinton’s tenure, the prudence exhibited by George H.W. Bush had long since vanished. Given her record, should Hillary Clinton win in November, the elder Bush’s foreign policy “realism” will have little chance of reappearing.