Avoiding the Clinton Foreign Policy Failure

Obama must reject the worldview that Bill Clinton used to get the U.S. into a terrible mess.

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The recent debates concerning Syria illustrate the desire to return to the perception held by the Clinton administration about foreign policy: a benign world governed by globalism, free markets, technology advances and soft liberalism. There is a parallel in American history for this contemporary desire, which, at its heart, buys into the myth of isolationism. In both instances the disciples of this lost cause pine for a world that never was and never could be. It has produced the most monstrous effects in American foreign policy and put up walls to American presidents who saw the storm clouds rising.

This was especially true of FDR in relation to the rise of anti-democratic regimes in the 1930s and Harry Truman over the threat of the Soviet Union. How many lives could have been saved if America had acted quickly and decisively? How many human beings were slaughtered for the naiveté of Wilsoniansim and the self-delusion of false isolationism?

We are witnessing the twelfth observance of the attacks by al-Qaida against the United States at a time when we are debating attacking the rouge regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The Obama administration has been offered a way out of this quandary by the "peace loving" Russians who, due the goodness of their heart, have devised a plan to secure Assad's chemical weapons. Addressing 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, stored in more than 50 nationwide locations, inside a civil war would be injecting reality into a desired fantasy.

The United States is now embroiled in a foreign policy debate that cuts to the very heart of what it means to be American. Americans are fond of repeating the mantra that America is special, unique and different. If this is true, then Americans from Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue need to answer the question of why we are special and different.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Our founders knew that the answer lay in the rejection of radicalism, monarchy and tyranny in exchange for republicanism. This was a republicanism based in virtue and strength. America, at its core, rejects notions of cold realism that governed most of the world's history precisely because we are not like other civilizations. We equally reject the child-like notions of liberalism which unfailingly, regardless of the lessons of history, believes that other nations will act as we do.

There have been numerous calls for "giving peace a chance in Syria" as a way to condemn the Obama administration's call for punitive strikes. What peace is this exactly? Is this the peace of the already more than 100,000 dead Syrians? This is not a peace, but a death sentence.

9/11 was supposed to jolt the American public back to the reality of international affairs; it did so for a time. The successful attacks proved that the Clinton years were times that allowed the terrorist threat and the menace from state actors to metastasize.

The Clinton team never succeeded in articulating a national security policy that meshed with America's role as the world's order-maker. It specifically feared any casualties among American military personnel and used this as an argument for inaction. It produced ill-conceived policies that led nowhere in Somalia and Haiti, counter-productive ventures in Yugoslavia, non-serious blustering in Iraq and horrible miscalculations in North Korea. It caused confusion to America's allies, and delivered a tortured relationship with Russia and China.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Almost all of this could be rewritten as new to describe the current administration's approach to foreign policy. This should be particularly remembered by those nostalgic for the Clinton years that were, and the ones that some hope to be again. Let us remember on this 9/11 observance what brought us here.

The terrorist threat posed by al-Qaida emerged during the Clinton years to undermine the Clinton, and now Obama, foreign policy stance of hesitation and appeasement. The first attack on Americans by the group known as al-Qaida was not the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, but rather the attempted bombing of American military forces in Aden, Yemen on December 29, 1992, one month before Bill Clinton became president. The chronology of subsequent terror attacks can be readily divided into Clinton's first and second terms.

Under the first term, from inauguration in 1993 to the presidential election in 1996, al-Qaida geared up from a minor terror enterprise to a global terror network whose number one target would become the United States.  After the Aden bombing, al-Qaida set up terror cells in Kenya and Somalia, resulting in the downing of a number of American Black Hawk helicopters and the killing of a number of American soldiers in Mogadishu. In June 1993, an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait was discovered. In January 1995, Philippine police discovered the plot to down 11 or 12 United States carrier passenger planes, followed in November by the bombing of a Saudi Arabian National Guard facility that killed five Americans.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

However, it took the February 26, 1993 attack on the World Trade Center to demonstrate the lengths to which al-Qaida would go to attack America in the homeland itself.  On August 7, 1998, al-Qaida blew up two American embassies in East Africa. On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole was attacked in Aden harbor by al-Qaida, killing 17 American sailors. During the Clinton presidency, al-Qaida changed from a petty Muslim extremist group wandering the deserts, on the margins of international relations, to a full blown terror network operating in 55 countries. The conduct of American foreign affairs took the path of least resistance. The Clinton years signaled to both transnational terrorist groups and state actors that the United States was unprepared to face conflict, and lacked the will to take decisive action. 

One would have thought that after the catastrophe of 9/11, let alone Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States would not need further harsh lessons in realpolitik. Here we stand again at a decision point on whether or not the United States will perform her duty, as a legacy of the founding, or shirk duty in favor of illusion, legalism and pale mythology. We barely made it through a two-term foreign policy disaster under Bill Clinton; we do not need a sequel by following the same failed policies.

Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

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