Posted on January 11, 1993 in Washington Watch

During the campaign President-elect Bill Clinton’s advisors continually reminded themselves of their candidate’s central political theme by hanging a sign in the Little Rock headquarters that read: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The point, of course, was simple. Dissatisfaction with George Bush’s economic performance was a driving force which helped push the Democrats and Clinton over the top in the November election.

Clinton made extensive promises on economic reform and pledged to make the economy the central focus of his Administration. Among his many promises were: a short-term economic stimulus package to spur economic growth; tax relief for the middle class; job retraining programs for workers displaced by structural changes in the economy. And all this would be accomplished while Clinton simultaneously cut the federal budget deficit in half by 1996.

Clinton has been confronted with a number of economic and political realities since his election victory, however, and already has begun to scale down these four main pledges in response. This week, for example, the Bush Administration issued its final budget projection and it included a built-in deficit of nearly $300 billion for fiscal year 1993. This number is $20 billion higher than the Bush team had initially projected for the year’s budget shortfall. Even worse, their extended budget forecast predicts a deficit of more than $400 billion by fiscal year 1997—unless the incoming Clinton Administration takes serious measures to correct the imbalance.

Following the unveiling of these budget numbers, a stunned and somewhat upset Bill Clinton reluctantly acknowledged that the situation was worse than he had been led to believe, and that he would have to make alterations in his economic recovery program. By week’s end Clinton convened a summit of his economic advisors to evaluate the new data and create new options to salvage both his economic growth proposals and his deficit-reduction goals. These options would have to take into account, however, that Clinton did not want to raise taxes in order to cover the expanded budgetary shortfall that he will inherit from George Bush.

Clinton is convinced that he must make dramatic moves on the economy if he wishes to maintain public support for his agenda. Hence his commitment to focus “like a laser” on economic issues, distractions in the field of foreign affairs notwithstanding. The sign from his campaign headquarters will probably be brought from Little Rock to Washington, where it will hang in a prominent place in the White House.

But as the Little Rock crowd comes to Washington, sign in hand, they may be forced to add a new sign to hang next to the one reading “It’s the economy, stupid!” This new sign will read “It’s the world, too!”

Historically, the United States press, the Congress and public opinion give a new president a “honeymoon”, a few months during which they withhold criticism until the new Administration establishes itself. The world of 1993, however, is likely to force Clinton into decisions so controversial as to disallow such a respite.

The world that awaits Bill Clinton’s inauguration is potentially more troubled and more dangerous than it has ever been.

It will pose genuine and grave tests of Bill Clinton’s diplomatic and international leadership abilities. On every continent there are tinderboxes waiting to ignite, and long-standing conflicts simmering at an ominous low boil. In each case Clinton and his new foreign policy team will face serious decisions that will test their resolve and their leadership skills.

Somalia will, of course, be the first foreign policy matter on the new President’s agenda. With 20,000 U.S. troops involved in Operation Restore Hope in that strife-torn and famine-worn country, Clinton will inherit a mission that his Administration will have to define even before beginning to work on a resolution. They must decide how far to expand the U.S. commitment and where to draw the line—Clinton must be determine which goals can and must be accomplished before the U.S. troops withdraw.

The Arab-Israeli Peace Process has once again be thrust onto the front burner, this time due to Prime Minister Rabin’s decision to expel 415 Palestinians. While Clinton continues to reassure all parties of his commitment to continuity in the peace process, and while he and his aides are fully aware of the need to resolve the Middle east conflict, on January 20th they will inherit and deeply troubled situation that requires difficult decisions. If Rabin does not back down on the expulsion orders, how will Clinton react to the inevitable calls for enforcement of the UN Security Council Resolution 799 which calls on Israel to recognize the right of the expelled men to return to their homes? And whether or not they are returned by February, what will the new Administration do to provide the leadership necessary to sustaining the talks?

Bosnia poses a most serious challenge to Clinton’s leadership. He has repeatedly and publicly adopted a tough stance against Serbian aggression, often going so far as to chide the Bush Administration to take a harder line (including threats of military action) than it has been willing to take. The new President will soon be forced to decide whether to utilize U.S. military might to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia, to lift the siege of Sarajevo, and whether or not to suspend the arms embargo against Bosnia. And should Serbia opt to move against Kosovo or Montenegro, Clinton will face the even greater challenge of whether or not to commit U.S. troops as part of a UN force charged with preventing the widening of the conflict.

Iraq continues to test the resolve of the United States and its allies. Clinton has supported President Bush’s tough stance against Saddam Hussein’s refusal to abide by UN Security Council Resolutions. But, since Saddam is more than likely to test the will of the new President, Clinton may soon have to decide how far he is willing to go to enforce the sanctions against the Iraqi regime.

While the Iraqis have made overtures in the hopes of getting milder treatment from the new Administration, Clinton has so far shown no willingness to let the regime off the hook. Tough talk by itself, however, will probably not suffice; and Clinton will be forced to spell out a policy vis a vis Iraq, and then stand by it. In doing so, however, he must be cognizant of the dangers posed by a dismembered Iraq. He must decide on a comprehensive policy which not only looks to the future state of Iraq, but also provides stability in the Gulf.

Iran has already begun to test the incoming Administration. It is purchasing new weapons at an alarming rate (including a barely disguised bid to acquire a nuclear capability), exporting terrorism to weaken other possible regional powers, and exercising its muscles with a show of strength in the Gulf. Iran is attempting to reestablish itself as a regional force. As all this goes on, however, it is also seeking to end its diplomatic isolation from the West. Clinton will have to respond creatively to this Iranian challenge to the U.S. allies in the Gulf.

Angola and South Africa are once again sources of intense strife. The promise of a peaceful transformation in both Angola and South Africa has been left unfulfilled. The renewed conflict in Angola is taking thousands of lives and is radicalizing extremists—from both the right and the left—in South Africa. Meanwhile the conflict in South Africa goes on unabated, and Clinton’s Democratic Administration will be pressured for more than symbolic action on this front not long after taking the reigns of power.

Haiti will probably present Clinton with yet another serious foreign policy challenge—quite possibly in hours between his inauguration and that evening’s balls. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Haitians are preparing for the Clinton inauguration by readying boats for a mass-exodus to the United States. Their efforts were fueled by Clinton’s criticism of the Bush Administration’s policy toward Haitian refugees, which created the impression that the new Administration would be more likely to admit Haitian refugees to the United States. (The Bush Administration has routinely returned them, often without interviews to determine whether they are political refugees who have the right of exile in the U.S., or economic refugees who do not.)

Clinton is promising to renew U.S. efforts to restore democracy in Haiti, and is also expected to deliver a speech soon specifically designed to tell the Haitians to hold off on their planned exodus—but this may not be enough to stop a flood of Haitians pouring out of their country and across the seas. The new President will have to decide how to deal with this situation, and he won’t have the luxury of time in which to do so. He must choose between two options: he can adhere to the implication of a campaign promise to open the doors to potentially thousands of Haitian immigrants—thereby threatening the entirety of U.S. immigration law and the immigrant quota system. Or he can return the Haitians—thereby eliminating the howls of criticism that would come from many quarters should he let the immigrants in, but also adopting the same realpolitik standard in his first foreign policy crisis that he so vehemently criticized the Bush Administration for using.

One can also add, among others, the following issues: unresolved points in bilateral trade talks between the U.S. and Mexico, the European Community and Japan; continuing strife in the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union; immediate decisions that must be made regarding Algeria’s democracy/economy conundrum; the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations; an expected test of wills with Cuba’s Castro regime; demands for economic aid from Russia and the Ukraine with an implication that those countries’ nuclear technology may have to be used as a bargaining tool to get aid; the perennially contentious of the trade status of China. After reviewing the catalogue of major international issues and crises that will demand attention from the new Administration from its opening moments, it becomes clear that Bill Clinton will have many “distractions” on his hands after noon on January 20th.


So it is that on the morning of January 21st Bill Clinton will awaken to an inheritance from George Bush that includes a new world order full of possibilities, but also fraught with dangers. It is a new world order defined not by the presence of peace and stability but by the fact that there is only one superpower; and that superpower must decide whether or not it is in its national interest to play an activist role in the effort to achieve peace and stability in many parts of the world.

This past month George Bush said his “good-byes” to this new world. In a highly publicized tour of Somalia, a successful arms-reduction treaty-signing in Russia, and a final Presidential summit with France’s President Mitterand, Bush sought to define the legacy of his presidency for future generations.

In addition, the outgoing President articulated in two major foreign policy addresses a “Bush Doctrine”—a major foreign policy guide that he leaves to his successors. While some commentators made much of a nagging vagueness in Bush’s declaration and in his overall record, even in the vagueness some principles are clear.

America, the President noted, has the ability and the responsibility to lead in the new world order. “We must” he said, “engage ourselves if a new world order, one more compatible with our values and congenial to our interests, is to emerge.” Bush further emphasized that it is not only logical, but also inevitable and necessary, that the U.S. be engaged in the world because we live in an interdependent world—a world system bound together by economic and other networks of interrelations.

On the critical issue of how to be involved in trouble spots, the President argued that it is sometimes necessary to use force to protect our interests and values. But, he cautioned, we should do so only when the application of force “can be limited in scope and time, and where the potential benefits justify the potential costs and sacrifices.”

Bill Clinton inherits this new world and the Bush Doctrine. It appears that he shares many principles with his predecessor. Clinton has repeatedly emphasized that he is an internationalist and that he believes in the use of American military might when it is necessary to protect national interests and values. He has gone somewhat further than Bush in projecting American values into his foreign policy. He has asserted that human rights and democratic principles will be cornerstones of his Administration’s foreign policy. These principles, he argues, cannot and will not be imposed on other countries, but they will be fostered and encouraged to grow where they already exist.

How he will apply these principles in actual foreign policy decisions remains to be seen. How the Clinton Administration will manage to focus “like a laser” on the domestic economy while simultaneously responding to multiple foreign policy crises and remaining engaged in the world will tell the story of success or failure of this new President.

Clinton cannot afford to fail domestically or alienate too many domestic constituencies if he is to remain an effective President, able to maintain a popular mandate or win reelection. At the same time, he cannot afford to sit back and be unresponsive or simply reactive to a world that will often look to the U.S. for leadership and assistance. As Jimmy Carter learned, a serious foreign policy crisis can cripple a President just as surely as a poor economy.

And so we can reasonably expect that the two signs will hang side-by-side in the White House as Clinton begins his term as the 42nd President of the United States.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus