Two Cheers for the Clinton Doctrine. (OK, Maybe Just One)


National Journal, May 27, 2000

In the poor, irrelevant, mutilated west African country of Sierra Leone, the Clinton Doctrine is hard at work. Not, mind you, the doctrine that President Clinton preaches, but the one he practices.

Last June, in the aftermath of NATO's successful operation to force President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian ethnic cleansers out of Kosovo, Clinton made a grand pronouncement in a speech to NATO troops in Macedonia. "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe or any other place," he said, "if somebody comes after civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it is within our power to stop it, we will stop it. We should not countenance genocide or ethnic cleansing anywhere in the world."

Foreign policy experts of the realpolitik school reacted with horror. If Clinton meant what he said, his doctrine could put American troops and money on the line in swamps and jungles and deserts all over the world. But not to worry. In September, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, clarified his boss' statement. "I don't think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there's a humanitarian problem," said Berger (how did you ever get that nutty idea?). "That's not a doctrine, that's just a kind of prescription for America to be all over the world and ineffective."

In fact, there is a Clinton Doctrine, but it is not the one that Clinton announced. In an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, a former Bush Administration official who is now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, tosses off what is actually a seminal observation, when you think about it. "There is no coherent 'Clinton Doctrine,' " he writes, "unless that means a willingness to intervene when the domestic political cost of standing aloof exceeds the cost of a carefully staged and limited operation." Aha! There you have it, the real Clinton Doctrine—the one operating in Sierra Leone.

In 1961, the British said goodbye to Sierra Leone and left it to many long decades of kleptocracy and civil war. In 1991, a cashiered corporal named Foday Sankoh formed the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army that set about conscripting children as young as 7, kidnapping and gang raping women, and chopping off the arms or legs of those civilians whom the rebels chose not to kill.

Eventually soldiers from Nigeria put the rebels to flight, and Sankoh wound up in jail under a sentence of death. But the operations in Sierra Leone cost the Nigerians half a million dollars a day, and they pulled out when America and other rich countries declined to foot the bill. And so it came to pass that, last summer, the United States pressed a peace agreement on Sierra Leone. The butcher Sankoh was released from jail and given a government job—one that put him in charge of the country's diamonds, no less—in exchange for a promise to disarm his men. A U.N. peacekeeping force would oversee the disarmament.

If you read the newspapers, you know the rest of the story. Sankoh's men never disarmed. Instead, they harassed the peacekeepers and finally, this month, captured hundreds of them, administering the most serious blow to U.N. peacekeeping since—well, since the last serious blow to U.N. peacekeeping, in Bosnia five years ago. Little Sierra Leone had created a world-class mess, with American help.

How could this happen? "The United States was determined not to commit resources—not to commit troops, not to commit money," says Gwendolyn Mikell, an Africa specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. In other words, the real Clinton Doctrine was in force. The Clinton Administration chose temporizing over decisive action. It chose cheap peace over dear justice and got neither.

Two groups of critics justifiably denounce the Administration's Sierra Leonean blunder. One school might be called the Kofi Annan faction. "No one—not the United Nations, not the international community, not Africa's leaders—can escape responsibility" for Africa's wars, says Annan, the U.N. secretary-general. Humanitarian outrages in Africa and elsewhere are everybody's business; the members of the U.N.'s Security Council, he argues, need to furnish more commitment and less cheapskate buck-passing.

Fair enough, up to a point. But America now posts almost 30,000 peacekeepers around the world. The Army has deployed ground troops in peacekeeping operations three dozen times since 1989, at a cost (almost $4 billion in 1998) that Congress is already reluctant to pay. The United Nations is involved in more than a dozen peacekeeping missions, and the trend is clear: Of the 49 peacekeeping operations that the U.N. led in its first 50 years (1948-98), 36 were in the final decade.

Clinton, for all his cynicism, is reading the American public correctly. Voters have no appetite for casualties in places like Sierra Leone; more disasters like the 1993 Somalia operation could turn Congress and the public against peacekeeping altogether. (The Republican Congress is already growling about U.S. involvement in the Kosovo mission.) The constraints of domestic politics may (or may not) be regrettable, but they are real, and coping with them may sometimes mean kicking problems down the road, or gambling on a peace deal that is unjust and risky—even naive—but perhaps not altogether hopeless.

Suppose the United Nations, the British, or the Nigerians act decisively to subdue Sankoh's rebels; then what? Sierra Leone effectively has no army or government. The government's revenue for the month of August last year was about $7,000. The country has been ravaged by a bewildering succession of dictators, coups, countercoups, and foreign interventions. As in Haiti and Kosovo, chaos could return the moment the peacekeepers turned their back.

"Exactly so," says the other group of critics, "which is why America should stay out of these situations altogether." This group is represented by George W. Bush, the Texas governor and presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Whether he is right or wrong, he receives too little credit for sticking his neck out to take a controversial position on humanitarian interventions. "I didn't like what went on in Rwanda," he said in February. "But I don't think we should commit troops to Rwanda. Nor do I think we ought to try to be the peacekeepers all around the world. I intend to tell our allies that America will help make the peace, but you get to put troops on the ground to keep warring parties apart."

According to this view, America should husband its clout and intervene only where its essential interests are implicated. That may sound cruel, but it is less cruel than making promises and breaking them. A great power that dissipates its strength willy-nilly, rather than practicing a tough-minded triage, will not be a great power for long.

In principle, my own realist sympathies incline to Bush's flinty, unsentimental view. In practice, however, that view is no more sustainable than its humanitarian counterpoint. Americans are followers of Jefferson and Wilson, not Machiavelli and Metternich. Not even a leader of Churchillian rhetoric and resolve could persuade Americans not to care at all when Serbs massacre thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica, when genocidaires murder hundreds of thousands in Rwanda, or when the RUF conscripts 12-year-olds to hack off the hands of farmers and peasants. In a world where a click of your mouse takes you to pictures of a one-legged Sierra Leonean girl being led along the street by a handless woman, the public does not have the stomach to turn its back altogether.

It is possible that George W. Bush, as President, would choose his humanitarian engagements more consistently and effectively than Bill Clinton has done. (That wouldn't be difficult.) What he could not do is choose not to choose. Balance-of-power realism and hard-nosed strategic doctrines are for competitions between great powers, and now, for the first time in many centuries, there is no great-power contest. America is boss of the world. When things get bad enough, one way or another America becomes involved.

So where does that leave us? Back, alas, at the Clinton Doctrine—the real one, which makes ad hoc judgments about the costs of staying out and the costs of going in, which hunts for Band-Aids and cheap fixes, and which sometimes errs grievously. As Haass notes, Clinton's ad hoc judgments have not been particularly impressive, or particularly moral, or particularly consistent, or particularly strategically incisive, or particularly anything. The next President may do better. But that President will be stuck with the Clinton Doctrine, which is easy to criticize but hard to replace. The people demand humanitarianism on the cheap, and that is what the Clinton Doctrine gives them.