Bill Clinton's Interventionist Legacy

President Clinton may be out of office, but his policies carry on

The president's arrogant, go-it-alone style has done much to alienate our European allies, so you will not be surprised to hear this complaint from the French foreign minister: "We cannot accept either a politically unipolar world, nor a culturally uniform world, nor the unilateralism of a single hyper-power." But you might be surprised to find that the statement was made in 2000—in a fit of pique at President Clinton.

On the TV news in June 2004, Britons waiting in line to buy copies of Clinton's memoirs were mooning about the good old days when the Atlantic alliance was strong and America was regarded with affection in Europe. Compared with George W. Bush, the people interviewed thought Clinton was a fine president.

Apparently, Americans are not the only people with short memories. Most of the complaints made about Bush's foreign policy were also made about Clinton's foreign policy. In many ways, Bush represents a dismal continuation of what went before.

He's not the first to antagonize the world community by launching an attack against Iraq without much support abroad. Clinton was criticized for doing that in 1996—even by Bob Dole, his Republican challenger—after he hit Iraqi air defense sites with cruise missiles. Vice President Al Gore responded in words that could have come from Dick Cheney: "Sometimes the U.S. has to take unilateral action when our interests are at stake."

It was under Clinton that America got a reputation for acting on its own in defiance of international opposition—as when it vetoed a second term for U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, refused to sign the treaty banning land mines and proceeded with plans for a national missile defense.

Sometimes Clinton was right, and sometimes he was wrong, but he was attached to multilateralism only when it helped him do what he wanted to do. His high-handedness annoyed foreign governments so much that in 2000, candidate Bush made a point of insisting that America should "be a humble nation."

Humility was as scarce in Clinton's administration as it is in Bush's. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once announced, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future."

Legend has it that until Bush came along, the U.S. government believed in working within the U.N. In fact, many of the people who objected when Bush bypassed the Security Council in going to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003 supported Clinton when he bypassed the Security Council in going to war against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.

Everyone has heard about Bush's contempt for international law. But most people have forgotten what Albright said when her British counterpart reported "problems with our lawyers" over whether NATO could attack Yugoslavia without Security Council approval. "Get new lawyers," was her retort.

The Kosovo war has other uncanny parallels with Iraq. Yugoslavia had not attacked the U.S. or anyone else, but Clinton proclaimed our right to use force against countries merely because they were violating human rights at home. In 2004, Al Gore denounced Bush's "assertion that he has the inherent power—even without a declaration of war by Congress—to launch an invasion of any nation on Earth, at any time he chooses, for any reason he wishes, even if that nation poses no imminent threat to the United States." Funny—Clinton took exactly the same view when he started bombing the Serbs.

In My Life, Clinton exhibits great pride in the Kosovo victory while ignoring the terrible mistakes his administration made there. Like Bush, whose cocksure approach to Iraq blinded him to reality, Clinton stumbled into the Kosovo war because of wishful thinking. He expected Milosevic to surrender as soon as the first American bombs fell, if not sooner.

In fact, that capitulation came only after 11 weeks of aerial bombardment—during which time the Serbs slaughtered as many as 10,000 Kosovar Albanians and expelled 800,000. "NATO went to war in the hope it could win without much of a fight," wrote Brookings Institution scholars Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon. "It was proven wrong." Sound familiar?

Democrats complain that Bush lacks an exit strategy in Iraq. Clinton, however, sent ground forces to Bosnia in 1995 with a promise that they'd return within a year, but it took about a decade.

When it comes to foreign policy, there's a lot of Clinton in Bush. And that's no compliment to either.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.


Editor's Note:
Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column originally was published in June 2004.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    NO NO NO
    Bill Clinton was an ordinary asshole. He did not commit hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground for an indefinite length of time. Comparing him to GWB is like comparing speeders to drunk drivers.

    STOP RUNNING STEVE CHAPMAN!
    The man's skull is an empty room. He has nothing useful to say about anything
    JUST STOP IT!

  • VM||

    um, Warren:

    you're blocking again. How do you really feel?

    and wouldn't GHWB be the one instead of willie, anyways?

  • ||

    what, no mention of Albright's "what's so great about an army if you're not going to use it?" quote?

    Warren - the point is that in terms of rhetoric about wars, Albright was the Dick Cheney of the 90s.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • ||

    there's a lot of Clinton in Bush

    I love a good double entendre in the morning.

  • ||

    I think Bush intended to be Clinton-rite (that's "lite" and "right" combined), but bin Laden wanted him to change.

  • Brandybuck||

    Considering the trillion dollar bailout we got over the weekend, I'm starting the really miss Bill.

  • ||

    Considering the trillion dollar bailout we got over the weekend, I'm starting the really miss Bill.

    Amen. Bill gave us the tech bubble. What W leaves behind may wind up being the next great depression and Newer Deal.

  • ||

    Bill gave us the tech bubble

    Bill didn't give us anything. To his credit, he stayed out of the way.

  • ||

    In 2004, Al Gore denounced Bush's "assertion that he has the inherent power-even without a declaration of war by Congress-to launch an invasion of any nation on Earth, at any time he chooses, for any reason he wishes, even if that nation poses no imminent threat to the United States." Funny-Clinton took exactly the same view when he started bombing the Serbs.

    I can't be the only who noticed that Chapman just described an indefinite war and occupation involving hundreds of thousands of ground troops in a combat zone as "exactly the same" as an aerial bombardment never intended to result in the occupation of territory.

    There's a legitimate argument to be made that some of Clinton's and Albright's actions were later built and expanded upon by Bush, but the nonsense "pox on both their houses" reflex seems to always result in silly overstatements that undermine that argument.

  • ||

    what, no mention of Albright's "what's so great about an army if you're not going to use it?" quote?

    Maybe that's because Albright didn't say that.

    This is one of the great political myths of our day - that Madeleine Albright asked Colin Powell, "What's the point of having a great military if you don't use it?"

    She didn't. AFTER the Kosovo War had begun, because of the inaccuracy of the high-altitude bombing by jets, the administration asked about getting Apache helicopters deployed, so they could more accurately target Serbian military and militias, and have fewer episodes of hitting the wrong targets. Powell told her that they can't deploy attack helicopters without having Abrams tanks to protect the bases (because helicopters would need to be stationed much closer to the action, owing to their shorter range), and that it would take months to float the Abrams tanks to the theater. So Albright asked, "What's the point of having this magnificent military if you CAN'T" not DON'T, not WON'T, CAN'T " use it?"

    Albright is much too hawkish for my tastes - her "my mindset is always Munich" quote is the damning one for me - but talking about the Army's capabilities while the war is already going on is NOT a philosophical statement about when to go to war.

  • ||

    joe - I'd have to read the memoir to verify whether you're right about the context of that statement.

    Wikipedia seems to quote it "out of your context" as well, for what it's worth.

  • Lefiti||

    It's fun watching free market funadamentalist nutbars squirm as the stupid fucking Reagan era comes to an end. Great show! Thanks.

  • ||

    TAO,

    Powell's memoir quotes it out of context, too. My take is that Powell, who really is a lot more dovish than Albright, and a lot less willing to accept military actions short of main-force wars, had been butting heads with her for some time, and when she came to discuss an expansion in the Army's role in Kosovo (ie, the Apaches), he thought "Here we go again," and interpretted what was a statement about capabilities as one about philosophy.

  • ||

    I can't be the only who noticed that Chapman just described an indefinite war and occupation involving hundreds of thousands of ground troops in a combat zone as "exactly the same" as an aerial bombardment never intended to result in the occupation of territory.

    That's a distinction, but not one that is reflected or captured in any discussion about war-making powers. If you have the power to bomb, then you have the power to invade. Both are acts of war.

  • ||

    Bill gave us the tech bubble

    Bill didn't give us anything. To his credit, he stayed out of the way.


    Good point

    If you have the power to bomb, then you have the power to invade. Both are acts of war.

    Like I said. Driving faster than the posted speed limit, and driving under the influence. Both are moving violations, but it's fucking retarded to equate them.

  • ||

    ..."but it's fucking retarded... "


    Ahhh, mrs. brotherben's description of my sexual prowess.

  • Brian||

    1996? What about 1998?

  • ktc2||

    Chapman is obviously a partisan hack. Why does Reason post/print him?

  • ktc2||

    Reason would be better and funnier -Chapman and -Bok.

  • ||

    ktc2
    I believe you're onto something. Chapman should write the captions for Bok.

  • Michael||

    I've been waiting for more stuff on Leftist interventionism. Good job! It's not only Right-wing warmongers who are a threat, but also Left-wing warmongers. Interventionists of any party affiliation are a threat to liberty and prosperity.

  • Andy||

    I'm genuinely curious, how do some people tihnk a website would get better if one or two optional to read columns per week were not directly put on the site's page? You could always, you know, not click on the articles. I'm honestly not trying to be a dick, i'm genuinely asking.

  • Brian||

    More room for good articles ???

  • ||

    RC Dean,

    There has traditionally been an understanding that the President could undertake actions below certain scale on his own, and that troop numbers above a couple thousand in the combat zone, or an occupying presence, are tripwires. No, it hasn't been written into law, but it was an understanding that both parties adhered to for a century or more.

    Bush pushed it in a way that Clinton didn't.

  • economist||

    joe,
    The funny thing about mutual understandings...

  • economist||

    Lefiti,
    Don't jack off on the keyboard. It makes the keys stick. Have you ever considered making an actual argument, rather than snide remarks?

  • Phillip Conti||

    STOP RUNNING STEVE CHAPMAN!
    The man's skull is an empty room. He has nothing useful to say about anything
    JUST STOP IT!

    I will not donate to reason because of steve chapman specifally. Whatever role Sullum has, give him more power!

  • ||

    Clinton started the war against the Serbs the day Monica Lewinsky was going to be on the headlines of every newspaper in the country.

    He started a war, killing thousands of people, just to cover his own butt politically.

    The Serbs to this day still refer to the NATO bombing campaign as "Monica's War".

    Clintons' argument about doing it to stop human right abuses is almost too stupid to even comment on. Let's bomb the Sudan and Burma too if that's the case.

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