In Bosnia, a Policy Built on Personality

By Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, December 25, 1995 | Go to article overview

In Bosnia, a Policy Built on Personality


Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


There are any number of think tanks, graduate schools and scholarly journals devoted to the study of foreign policy, but perhaps the best way to understand American foreign policy today is to watch Richard Holbrooke enter a room. Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, often arrives late but never unnoticed. He does not so much walk in as barge in. He is immediately the center of attention--noisier, more optimistic, more demanding and dominating than anyone in the room. He is at once plain-spoken and cunning, honest and manipulative, principled and devious. In short, he embodies most of the virtues and some of the flaws that make American power indispensable to getting things done around the world.

Foreign policy, as taught by purists like Henry Kissinger, is supposed to be about pursuing the interests of the United States, generally defined as the safety and economic well-being of its people. But American interests do not really explain why the Clinton administration has committed forces to Somalia, Haiti or Bosnia, peripheral countries that pose no threat and offer little gain to most Americans. American intervention in those countries is not mindless--U. S. troops ca n stop the killing in Bosnia and the violence in Haiti (at least for a time), feed the hungry in Somalia and honor America's commitments to its allies in Europe. But these rationales earnestly advanced by administration spokesmen, don't quite ex plain why American GIs need to sweat, freeze and bleed in seedy corners of the world.

It may be more useful to understand American foreign policy as an expression of the character and personality of the men who shape that policy. Bill Clinton is in some ways the least among them. He may be the commander in chief, but he has not been the prime mover in any of the interventions of the past two years. Distracted by domestic politics, wary of foreign entanglements, Clinton has been dragged along, sometimes very reluctantly, by his top advisers. It was national-security adviser Anthony Lake who, more than anyone, pressed for the armed occupation of Haiti in the summer of 1994.

Seemingly meek and unassuming, Lake, 56, is actually a stern moralist, steeped in Yankee rectitude. A self-described "neo-Wilsonian," he is a vestige of an era when American policymakers saw themselves as more high-minded than cynical Europeans whose imperialism was driven by glory and greed. Making the world safe for democracy is Lake's credo, just as it was Woodrow Wilson's during and after World War I. Lake protests that he is a good deal more pragmatic than the idealists of an earlier generation. Nonetheless, he is guided more by American values (democracy and human rights) than by interests (security and trade). He would like to export that quality which is best about America: respect for the individual. …

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