Ready, Fire, Aim: Clinton's Left-Footed Foreign Policy

By Meyerson, Adam | Policy Review, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Ready, Fire, Aim: Clinton's Left-Footed Foreign Policy


Meyerson, Adam, Policy Review


In the space of only 18 months, President Bill Clinton has squandered three precious assets in American foreign and defense policy that were bequeathed to him by Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

He has destroyed the credibility of the United States before friend and foe. He has shattered the morale of the U.S. armed services. And despite his Reaganesque eloquence on this subject as a presidential candidate, he has seriously damaged America's moral leadership on behalf of freedom around the world.

Call His Bluff

The damage to America's credibility is already enormous, and will be difficult to repair. When President Bush drew a line in the sand and said Iraqi aggression would not stand, the world knew he meant it. Without that certainty, he would not have been able to rally behind him the public opinion of the American people or to forge his extraordinary worldwide alliance against Saddam Hussein.

So, too, when Ronald Reagan said the United States would proceed with cruise missile and Pershing II deployments in Western Europe in the mid-1980s, the world knew he would stand up to the Soviet intimidation campaign designed to stop them. Reagan won the support not only, of British, French, German, and Dutch governments - more important, he won the support of their voters - and the Soviet strategy of splitting Europe from America was defeated. The willingness to carry through on commitments won respect for the United States even when approval was initially, lacking. The liberation of Grenada in 1983, the bombing of Libya in 1986, measures such as these sent t a strong signal to aggressors and would-be enemies: there were certain things the United States would not tolerate, and woe to those who tried them.

This credibility has now disappeared. Neither allies nor potential enemies have any confidence that Bill Clinton means anything he says as commander-in-chief of the United States. One day he's ready, to bomb the Serbs, the next day he's reconsidered. One day he's sending troops to Haiti, the next day he's pulled them back. One day, he says we cannot tolerate a North Korean nuclear bomb, the next day his advisers say he misspoke. One month he lays down the gauntlet to China, threatening to cut off trade in the absence of human rights improvements. A few months later, when China calls his bluff, he says that really, wasn't a good idea.

This is the most serious character problem of the Clinton presidency, and it is the principal source of the deep misgivings European and Asian leaders harbor toward ward the new president. Admitting mistakes can be admirable, up to a point, but the United States cannot afford the luxury of a commander-in-chief who fires before he aims. To begin with, allies will refuse to take unpopular or difficult actions at America's request if they fear that Washington will pull the rug out from under them by changing its own position. Hence the paradox: for all Clinton's talk of multilateralism, Reagan and Bush did a better job winning the support of allies.

Reckless Confrontation

More dangerous than the effect on allies is the effect on potential enemies. Why should China, after Clinton's flip-flop on Most-Favored Nation status, pay any attention to an demand or request from the United States? How does Kim Il-Sung of North Korea know what the United States will not tolerate when that standard is always changing? In his approach to potential adversaries, President Clinton alternates between appeasement (postponing joint exercises with South Korea as a goodwill gesture to Kim Il-Sung) and reckless confrontation (going after Aideed in Somalia; threatening intervention in Bosnia). This is a lethal combination that risks involving the United States in wars we don't want to enter.

The danger of reckless confrontation is that conflict will escalate and the United States will either have to withdraw after being bloodied (Somalia, Haiti) or get dragged into a war we otherwise would have avoided. …

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