Republican Senator Bob Dole never fails to get a laugh when he says that President Clinton's only foreign policy success occurred in Singapore when he got Michael Fay's lashes reduced from six to four. When jokes like that start making the rounds, you know that the American president is in trouble. It probably signals a continuation of the one-term president malady, a political disease that has afflicted America in the last half of this century. It is hard to believe, but since Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, only two presidents--Eisenhower and Reagan--have completed two full terms as the chief executive. Restoring stability to the White House is just about the only argument one can think of to support the re-election of Mr. Clinton.
In politics, when even your friends perceive weakness, most of them cease being your friends. Thus, Clinton has had to endure an endless string of indignities from those who should be on his side. In both the Washington Post and the New York Times, you can read the ultimate heresy: he can't get re-elected. Almost all of the aides he brought with him from Arkansas have been fired, forced to resign, or are plea bargaining with the Whitewater prosecutor. Last year, even Clinton's own pollster urged Democratic Congressional candidates to distance themselves from the President, although the Clinton drag on the ticket proved so strong that many of them lost anyway.
Instead of rounding up the usual scapegoats, perhaps the time has come for the President to look into the mirror. Elected as something called a `new' Democrat, Mr. Clinton is head of an Administration composed of an odd assortment of young and old liberals. One-third of his White House staff couldn't even get a security clearance in the early days of his presidency.
Like too many American politicians, Clinton started out by dreaming how the history books would evaluate him. He decided he would be remembered for his domestic initiatives, in which universal health care would shine as the crown jewel. He lost most of those battles, and now events have forced him to focus his energy and attention on the subject he likes the least, foreign affairs. The ironies abound--like the fact that international policy is now made by a man who once planned protests against his country outside the US embassy in London, or that the man who serves as commander-in-chief once wrote how he loathed the American military.
To Clinton, foreign policy had always meant Vietnam. His Administration would be different. International crises would be left to the United Nations to resolve. In the spirit of the 1960s, America would spend its resources on ploughshares rather than guns. Instead of waging war, the US would `build nations'. Perhaps this explains why he assembled such a weak foreign policy team.
Insiders on Capitol Hill will tell you that the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is in charge of all things that don't matter. Last year, the Secretary complained to the press that `even the golf pro sees more of the President than I do'. The big decisions are made in the Oval Office when Mr. Clinton calls in Christopher's deputy, Strobe Talbot.
Talbot -- an expert on Russian poetry -- shared rooms with Clinton when at Oxford and later became a staff writer for Time magazine where he is best remembered for his pro-Soviet views. Being number two at the State Department is a perfect job for a man driven by ideology rather than ambition.
Among the other participants at these sessions is said to be Morton Halperin. Thanks to overwhelming criticism in the Senate, his nomination to a high Pentagon post failed. Clinton then named him to the National Security staff at the White House, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. Conservatives remember Halperin ruefully as the man once accused of leaking intelligence secrets to the press.
Other top Clinton advisers such as the young George Stephanopoulos pop in from time to time for what has been described as casual decisionmaking in a feet on-the-desk, pizza-and-beer atmosphere. The foreign policy ideologues had hoped that the hallmark of the Clinton years would be nuclear disarmament agreements, environmental treaties, and international abortion programmes. Instead, they are forced to discuss Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia.
The inevitable result of this is confusion and contradiction. One of the jokes among the White House press corps is that today's briefing always begins with a retraction of yesterday's news release. Little wonder, then, that America's word is no longer its bond, that confusion reigns in foreign capitals, and that the Clinton presidency is dismissed abroad as a period of marking time until the real President is elected in 1996.
Many wondered what it would be like when a child of the 1960s was in charge, and now we know. Some examples:
In November 1992, Clinton said that the practice of sending refugees back to Haiti was a mistake, but two months later, he announced that the policy would continue. And it would be nice to report that the on-again, off-again `invasion' of Haiti was clever policy designed to keep the Haitian army off guard, but not even the White House admits to being that inventive.
Early in 1993, the newly-elected president called ethnic cleansing in Bosnia `an idea that needs to be nipped in the bud'. But before a year had passed, he conceded that `our ability to stop people within national boundaries from killing each other is somewhat limited'. At that time, America's NATO allies let it be known they would give Clinton a `honeymoon' period in which to develop his Bosnian policy. Clinton's honeymoon lasted longer than some of Elizabeth Taylor's marriages.
Candidate Clinton pledge to link China's trading privileges to its human rights record. But President Clinton said he was moving to `delink human rights from the annual extension of most favoured nation trading status'. In recent weeks policy towards China has had one goal: getting Hillary Clinton to the UN Conference on Women.
In June 1993, the President announced that the mission in Somalia was one of nation-building. Four months later, with a perfectly straight face, he insisted that the `US mission is not now, nor was it ever, one of nation-building'.
Anonymous White House aides give constant reassurances to reporters that he has finally seen the light and is mending his ways, as if somehow the American presidency is a spin-off of the federal job-training programme. However, the President could still get back on track. But for starters he would have to abandon the practice of letting domestic policy `drive' foreign policy. Clinton's insatiable appetite for domestic proposals often makes it seem as if a `For Sale' sign has been hung on the front door of the State Department with every policy initiative treated like a bargaining chip.
Haiti is a good example. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (Democrats all) were prepared to fight the Administration's crime bill and some of them were giving the Clinton health care plan only lukewarm support. Congressman Porter Goss, a Republican from Florida, finally went public with what everyone else was saying in private, that it was only a matter of time before American troops would be sent to hapless Haiti -- not because Haiti poses a threat to American security, but because intervention would court favour with the Black Caucus. As things turned out, the US troops did move into Haiti and the crime bill did pass.
Senator Kennedy posed a special problem for the President in that the Senator had his own health care reform plan. It was not lost on the White House that the Kennedy name still rings with magic to the press or that Ted Kennedy is more popular within the Democratic Party than is Mr. Clinton. Thus, the Administration knew how easy it would be in the legislative process for the `Clinton' health plan to become the `Kennedy' health plan, a prospect further enhanced by the fact that Mr. Kennedy would be chairing one of the two Senate committees drafting health care legislation. Is it only coincidence, therefore, that Kennedy's long-cherished dream of a White House visit for the IRA mouthpiece Gerry Adams should become a reality? Many Republicans will tell you this is one more example of how foreign policy was driven by Clinton's domestic agenda.
The Administration has thrown a small gift to the Democratic Party's left by supporting the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, a 23-year-old relic of the Cold War. The ABM treaty is based upon the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), although in today's world, one wonders who it is `mutual' with.
Just before the 1994 congressional elections, with his party's candidates on the ropes, Mr. Clinton reversed long-standing policy on the admission of Cuban refugees at the urging of political bosses in Florida. The State Department might like to have Mr. Clinton leading a peace mission to Fidel Castro, but not if the prospect is further Democratic losses in `the Sunshine State' of Florida. One wonders what would have been the impact of a Croatian voting bloc in the United States, if one existed, on the arms embargo.
World leaders surely recognise that current American policy is political, and part of it is bluff. The man who `loathed' the military has decimated much-of his country's preparedness, sacrificing it to domestic priorities. Dozens of Army installations are closing down. The Air Force has trimmed the number of aircraft by one-third. The Navy has removed more than 150 ships from its fleet. Last year, the Pentagon, under pressure from the White House, said it may have to delay every new weapons system under development. If Clinton has his way, by 1999, defence spending will be lower than it was on the eve of World War II.
Not only that, but much of the 1995 military budget is a cover for social spending. It includes such defence `expenditures' as $23 million for AIDS research, $65 million to relieve an alleged teacher shortage, $15 million for black colleges, $210 million for breast cancer research, and $35 million for environmental scholarships. Little wonder that the Washington Times told its readers a few months ago: `. . . just three years after US combat forces wowed the world in the devastating victory over Iraq, doubts are growing about whether the American military could win Operation Desert Storm today'.
The Administration tells the American people that it only needs the ability to deal with two regional wars which break out simultaneously, nothing more. Few believe the US could do even that. One knowledgeable British conservative worries that small-time dictators are simply waiting until Clinton commits the troops elsewhere before stirring up trouble.
It is hard to think of one truly `new' policy President Clinton has advocated other than to proclaim that the US now has `a special relationship' with Germany at the expense of Britain. And no one in Washington takes this seriously. Republicans on Capitol Hill dismiss it as the President's way of repaying John Major for having expressed a preference in 1992 for the re-election of George Bush. In time, they say, even Bill Clinton will realize that America's historical ties, its cultural heritage, and its traditions, lie with Britain. It will be just another case of `another pizza, another policy'.
The Administration's foreign policy has yet to take its toll on Mr. Clinton's standing in the polls. After all, not many American servicemen are at risk these days. Yet, looming on the horizon is another issue which poses substantial risks for the President, and that is growing concern over unchecked immigration.
According to the Library of Congress, if the influx of aliens, legal and illegal, continues at the present rate, Caucasian Americans will find themselves in a minority in about 50 years. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see how this can affect the outcome of future national elections in the United States. Already in some parts of the South, the two political parties have become racially polarized. Almost all minorities (Cuban Americans being the most notable exception) are overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party. For Clinton to take any meaningful steps to curb immigration runs the risk of offending his party's base vote. On the other hand, Caucasian Americans (plus some blacks concerned that aliens are crowding them out of the job market) are demanding that the government do something to slow the process.
California Governor Pete Wilson has made the immigration problem one of the cornerstones of his campaign for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. Congressional Democrats are increasingly worried and have proposed reforms. Even President Clinton acknowledges that a problem exists, but so far his only suggestion has been to include illegal aliens in his health care reform plan.
What all of this could mean for Britain and the rest of Europe, when the leader of the world's only superpower no longer shares their political heritage and possibly their values, makes concern over today's foreign policy failures pale by comparison. Viewed from this perspective, it could be said that Britain and-Europe have as big a stake in the outcome of next year's presidential election as have the people of the United States.
We may come to see Clinton's blunders as a blessing if the result is a new American leader who holds a credible world view=and who understands the meaning of leadership.
A century before Clinton came to England, another Oxford man, Lewis Carroll, wrote these words:
Alice asked, `Would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?'
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the cat.
`I don't much care where,' said Alice, `so long as I get somewhere.'
Today, Mr. Carroll might smile and call it, `Clinton's Adventures in Wonderland'.
[Richard K. Thompson is a political consultant in Washington. He worked for a variety of congressmen and committees in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives for 40 years.]…