Posted on October 17, 1994 in Washington Watch
President Clinton glowed with exhilaration and relief as he addressed the nation on October 10th. The last of Haiti’s military leadership was leaving the country, which paved the way for the return of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And a decisive U.S. response to the Iraqi military build-up near the Kuwaiti border was being well-received across the U.S. political spectrum. The much-beleaguered Clinton foreign policy team was receiving public accolades for the first time.
The Haiti operation, fraught with dangers and potential pitfalls, has progressed smoothly. After taking a bipartisan bashing in the Congress from an unsupportive Congress, the Administration strategy on Haiti appeared to be paying off. The threat of force had convinced the Haitian military junta to cede power and, despite a number of tense and difficult moments, the process of reestablishing Haiti’s elected government and rebuilding that nation’s security forces is moving forward.
While some still question the relevance of the President’s “national interest” justification for the U.S. involvement in Haiti, with the exception (of course) of Ross Perot, very few voices are being raised against what seems to be a winning and bloodless campaign to restore democracy to Haiti.
The media, usually quite critical of Clinton in general and his foreign policy in particular, was uniform in its praise of the President. On the day the leader of the Haitian military government, General Raoul Cedras, announced his resignation from power, NBC news called it, “An important moment in President Clinton’s campaign to restore democracy to Haiti.” CBS announced, “Cedras bowed to U.S. military intervention.” And ABC news, the highest rated in the country, gave Clinton credit for bringing about “a day most Haitians thought would never come.” And the praise extended to the President’s swift handling of the crisis with Iraq.
After being roundly criticized for being “indecisive and ineffectual” in foreign policy, Clinton appeared strong and decisive. In his October 10th speech to the nation, the President noted, “Our objectives were clear, our forces are strong and our cause is right. We will not allow Saddam Hussein to defy the will of the United States and the international community.”
Even Clinton’s Republican opponents were strong in their praise of his actions regarding Haiti and, particularly, Iraq. Former President Bush said, “President Clinton has done the right thing in moving the force promptly. ...I fully support what the President has done.” Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker also praised the move, saying, ” What President Clinton said in his press conference was exactly the right approach to take.” Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole called Clinton’s action “the appropriate response.” And in answer to a question about Ross Perot’s criticism that Clinton acted out of political motivation, Dole said, “I’m going to leave the politics out of it. This is not a Democratic or Republican effort, this is an American effort.”
The nation’s papers rang out in praise of Clinton. Headlines the day after the President’s speech included: “For Clinton, a moment to savor;” “President basks in glow of twin successes;” and “Iraq, Haiti, give Clinton rare wins in foreign policy.” The ever colorful New York Daily News front-page headline read; “Suddenly Wimp Willie is Big Bad Bill.” And political pundits predicted a significant shift in the President’s public approval ratings as result of the moves and media praise.
The early polls seem to bear out this prediction. A large sample showed 74% of the Americans approving of sending troops to deter Iraq, and Clinton’s overall approval rating has edged up 7 points, largely as a result of his foreign policy victories in Haiti and Iraq. It is somewhat ironic that this late in the stretch run for the November elections, Clinton and the Democrats are getting a boost from foreign policy reasons after trumpeting their domestic agenda and enduring regular criticism for their handling of foreign policy over the last twenty-two months.
In a real sense, despite their obvious differences, both Cedras and Saddam have helped “make Clinton’s day” – and both provide interesting case studies in the important role of public opinion in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
While other significant factors must also be considered in determining the feasibility and desirability of U.S. military intervention – for example, national interest and winnability – public opinion, both domestic and international, are central factors and can even be decisive.
There are, in fact, four “publics” whose opinion needs to be taken into account. Three of them are domestic: public opinion in general, the opinion in Congress, and the opinion of key interest groups whose ability to shape both Congressional and Presidential actions are sometimes critical to any action. The fourth group to be considered is the opinion of regional allies and the affect that any action will have on them.
Looking at the crisis in Bosnia, for example, one sees that despite some strong Congressional voices in favor of a change in policy and support for lifting the arms sanctions in order to help the Bosnian government’s ability to punish the Serbian aggressors, the Congressional actors have been slow in mobilizing their colleagues and have never posed an organized or decisive challenge to the Administration’s policy. Public opinion in general has been ambivalent about U.S. action in Bosnia and is generally opposed to a significant military involvement. And despite valiant though under funded efforts by Arab American and Muslim American organizations, no decisive interest group has materialized to threaten the Administration’s position. Add to this the fact that the U.S.’ main European allies have continually opposed any unilateral U.S. action while they themselves have failed to present a direct challenge to the Serbs to stop their aggression, and it becomes clear why, continued Serb aggression notwithstanding, U.S. policy will most probably not change to a directly interventionist posture.
In Haiti, the picture was somewhat different. Initially, public opinion was not in favor of a U.S. intervention and there was strong Congressional opposition to any direct U.S. role – in fact Clinton never would have won a vote in Congress in support of ousting Haiti’s military regime. But a key interest group – the Congressional Black Caucus, consisting of 40 African American members of Congress – and the strong lobbying and direct action of the African American lobby Trans Africa did present a growing challenge even a threat to the Clinton Administration. A hunger strike by Trans Africa’s leader and civil disobedience which led to the arrests of some members of Congress proved embarrassing to the Administration. And added to these domestic efforts was international support for a change in policy that finally forced the Administration to act.
The success so far of the Haitian campaign has, as I have noted, silenced Congressional critics and at least neutralized public opinion opposition to the intervention. If the policy continues to succeed, and it does face some risks, it will serve the President well. He will be assured of the support he needs from his important political base in the African American community and it will reinforce the U.S. role in the Caribbean and Western Hemispheric affairs.
Action against Saddam Hussein poses no difficulty on any level of public opinion. General public opinion Congressional opinion, key interest groups and the U.S.’s regional allies see the regime of the Iraqi government as “fair game.” While there is growing concern for the plight of the Iraqi people, that concern in no way translates into a weakness of resolve to hold Saddam’s government in check. In fact, his government is seen as the main reason why the people of the country continue to suffer – not only are they suffering from sanctions but also from Saddam’s repressive rule.
In the realm of public opinion, there are no real voices against the President’s action in response to the Iraqi military buildup. In fact, the reverse is true. Failure to take the decisive and punitive action he has against the Iraqi regime would be a liability for any U.S. leader.
While some speculate as to what Saddam’s motives may have been and how he may have sought to use his recent provocative action to his advantage – given any reading of U.S. opinion and the imperative it creates for any U.S. President – Saddam clearly miscalculated and will most probably pay dearly for his misreading of the situation.
In a real sense, Saddam gave the Administration an important opportunity to demonstrate to a concerned U.S. public that it could and would respond. Not only has the President received a short-term “bump” in the polls for his action, but it has reinforced public opinion about his leadership, and given some reinforcement as well to his Haiti policy and handling of foreign policy in general.
How the Administration moves forward riding the crest of this wave of bipartisan public support as the crisis with Iraq continues to develop, will be determined by other factors: a course of action that meets U.S. interests, that is acceptable to regional allies and is either winnable or likely to produce a positive outcome – but it is clear that the President will face little domestic opposition to any action.
There is an irony in all of this. Bill Clinton based his Presidency on fulfilling a domestic agenda. While he has faced significant challenges in Congress, he has succeeded in turning the economy around and in passing some important domestic legislation. But even with 4 million new jobs, sustained economic growth, the lowest inflation rate in a decade, and a reduced unemployment level – he still has not received the public support and recognition that his record warrants.
At the same time, the President was castigated by friend and foe alike for what was characterized as a “waffling foreign policy.” What is surprising, therefore, is that this same Bill Clinton now goes forward to the November elections with increased public support for his two most recent foreign policy actions.
Can Clinton sustain the momentum, and can he continue to move the situations in both Haiti and Iraq to positive outcomes? Time will tell the answer to those questions, but what is certain so far is that both Cedras and Saddam have given Bill Clinton an important opportunity to win public support for his Administration – and so close to the November elections.
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