Stability and Change in President Clinton's Foreign Policy Beliefs, 1993-96

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Debate over President Clinton's Worldview

The election of Bill Clinton as president in November 1992 brought to Washington, DC, a "self-admitted [domestic] `policy wonk'" who "was clearly less comfortable with foreign and defense matters than his predecessor."(1) Indeed, throughout the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Clinton made it clear that "if a battle was to be fought, resources of intervention deployed, it would be in a war against domestic problems, not foreign enemies."(2) In other words, the public had a good idea that if Clinton were elected, he would "focus like a laser beam" on the domestic economy in order to be the domestic policy president that George Bush had not been. However, because he spent the majority of his time discussing domestic problems, his views on foreign policy and America's place in the post-cold war world largely remained a mystery.(3)

Some argue that the ad hoc, inconsistent nature of American foreign policy during 1993 and 1994 further contributed to the growing feeling that President Clinton had still not developed a coherent worldview. During his first term, for example, he earned the nickname "William the Waffler" for his administration's supposed inconsistency in linking rhetoric with policy on human rights violations in China, refugee problems in Cuba and Haiti, and in haphazardly getting the United States involved in the long-running, tragic conflict in Bosnia.(4) Thus, trying to discern Clinton's image of the world has been the cause of much debate and academic focus, particularly since, as the first "baby boomer" president, Clinton has very little "in common with the life experiences and shared worldview of the generation of Cold War leaders" who preceded him.(5)

Much analysis of Clinton's foreign policy at midterm characterizes the president's worldview and his administration's policy as inconsistent/incoherent, complex/complicated, or nonexistent. Fred Greenstein describes Clinton's approach to foreign policy as "highly personalistic and sometimes indecisive" and his worldview as "inconsistent."(6) Wolfowitz generally concurs with Greenstein, calling it "confused and inconsistent."(7) Friedman also agrees, calling the president's "foreign policy blueprint nonexistent" and incoherent.(8) Brent Scowcroft characterizes the Clinton image of the world as a "peripatetic foreign policy outlook at prey to the whims of the latest balance of forces."(9)

Gelb and others disagree, arguing instead that Clinton does have a coherent worldview: these analyses argue that President Clinton's worldview is "complex and coherent" rather than inconsistent and confused.(10) Schneider, for example, argues that President Clinton has developed a cohesive, complex sense of U.S. policy as "more multilateral" and oriented toward collective efforts "to deal with threats to the [international] peace."(11) J. Bryan Hehir also agrees that the Clinton image of the world is complex and suggests that it is one well tailored for the realities of a world that has changed to such a degree that "the very depth and change at work in the world has made the formulation of a grand strategy impossible."(12)

Another prominent midterm view centers on the idea that Clinton simply does not have a foreign policy worldview because he focuses almost exclusively on domestic political, economic, and social concerns. Robert Pastor explains that Bill Clinton justities his administration's "internationalism by reference to domestic political concerns like drugs, crime, or jobs, and that he employs a domestic political calculus to judge when and how to respond to foreign crises."(13) Berman and Goldman argue that "Clinton has defined the U.S. national purpose as one of domestic renewal."(14) Lieber reports that upon taking office as president, Clinton was initially very reluctant to devote regular attention to foreign policy, but that if his policy had to be articulated, it would center on the nexus between domestic and international concerns, especially the link between the global and the domestic economy. …