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.


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