Posted on July 05, 1993 in Washington Watch

Major U.S. editorial writers and political analysts gave President Bill Clinton near universal support for his decision to bomb Iraq’s intelligence headquarters on June 26th.

With only the New York Times taking an opposing view, the general consensus was that the President acted decisively and that his action would win him new public support.

In fact, lagging polls and a nagging debate over whether the U.S. under Clinton would provide leadership in world affairs may have been the two most pressing reasons why the President chose to bomb Iraq at this time.

Polls taken after the bombing show that Clinton’s approval ratings did climb, by 10%, boosting his overall ratings to only about 50%. However, approval of the President’s economic performance is still at a low 36% and in the weeks to come, if not altered, this will drag down the overall positive ratings to their pre-bombing low. So while Clinton did get a sudden slight surge in the polls, it may be short-lived.

In the matter of the foreign policy debate, the bombing has not had an appreciable affect. Most columnists and political analysts wonder what will be the guiding principles and main characteristics of a Clinton foreign policy. And the bombing has not answered these questions to their satisfaction.

The discussion about the shape of foreign policy under Clinton has recently come to the forefront of public attention after “background” comments made by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff were revealed by some reporters.

Tarnoff, speaking, he said, on behalf of President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, sought to define the general principles of the new U.S. foreign policy that would be implemented by the Clinton Administration.

Central to Tarnoff’s presentation was the notion that in the post-Cold War period “U.S. economic interests are paramount.” In this new situation, Tarnoff noted, the U.S. lacks the resources to maintain its Cold War level of involvement and in many crises the U.S. will find that it doesn’t have “the leverage…or the influence…to bring to bear the kind of pressure that will produce positive results.”

As a result, he suggests, the U.S. would make a commitment to multi-lateralism.
“We’re talking about new rules of engagement for the United States. There will have to be genuine power-sharing and responsibility sharing.”

“There may be occasions in the future where the United States acts unilaterally,” he continued. But he strongly implies that these situations will be limited to those instances where “we perceive an imminent danger very close to home.”

In one of his strongest statements, Tarnoff noted

“I am perfectly able to withstand criticism that we are abdicating power on this issue [presumably meaning Bosnia] because I believe, and more importantly the President and Secretary believe, that for more major international issues of this sort, where other regional players have a great stake, we should make very clear that we will play a role, we will have a leadership role, but we are not going to be so far out front as to allow them to defer to the U.S. when it comes to making the very hard decisions on the commitment of men and women and resources.”

In summation, Tarnoff said, due to new economic realities, the U.S. in the post-Cold War era would “define the extent of its commitment and make a commitment commensurate with those realities. This may on occasion fall short of what some Americans would like and what others would hope for ”—but this, he warned, was the shape of the new foreign policy to come.

Reactions to Tarnoff’s views were immediate and so negative that both President Clinton and Secretary of State Christopher sought to distance themselves from his statements.

Secretary Christopher appeared on Nightline, a popular news program, and then delivered a major foreign policy address in an effort to set the record straight. Although White House denials were strong and Christopher used the word “leadership” 23 times in his speech in an effort to make it clear that the United States was not abdicating its role, nevertheless many analysts peering through the rhetoric thought that Christopher, in fact, reaffirmed many of Tarnoff’s views.

For example, in the Nightline interview, Christopher, speaking of Bosnia, noted
” this kind of situation, a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent, I think our actions here are proportionate to what our responsibilities are …in this post-Cold War period. We can’t do it all; we have to measure our ability to act in the interests of the United States.”

In fact, it was precisely because Tarnoff’s statements came in the wake of the U.S. retreat on Bosnia that the debate about Clinton’s foreign policy became as intense as it did.

Administration officials went further in an effort to allay fears that the United States was retreating from a world leadership role by emphasizing areas where Clinton had shown real leadership. They pointed with pride to Clinton’s immediate response to provide political support and economic aid to Russia, the Administration’s firm stand in the trade talks with Europe and Japan, and the United States’ continuing leading role in the Middle East peace talks—but critics were not satisfied.

In fact, criticism in the press was quite harsh. One former leading Clinton foreign policy advisor, Michael Mandelbaum, wrote an especially sharp piece in the New York Times entitled “Like it or not, we must lead.” And David Broder, the nation’s premier political commentator, spoke for many of his colleagues when he wrote his nationally syndicated column entitled “Another Carter?”.

It may have been, in part, the need to gain some respite from the debate that led the President to act to defend U.N. troops under assault in Somalia and to strike at Iraq in retaliation for what was characterized as “compelling evidence” that Saddam Hussein had ordered the attempted assassination of former President George Bush.

But while both actions were positively received by both the press and political analysts, they have not resolved the critical debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy. Serious questions continue to be raised.

Within days after the attack on Iraq, some are even asking questions about the attack itself:
· Was the attack carried out more for domestic political reasons?
· Why didn’t the White House wait until after the Kuwaiti court had given its verdict regarding those accused of the assassination plot?
· Why were White House spokespeople so insistent on the fact that the President would not dwell on this attack and would instead return his focus to the economy?
· Does the United States have a long-term policy towards Iraq and Gulf security? And how does this bombing fit into that policy?

In this context, it was particularly interesting to note the extensive and respectful coverage most major media gave to the views of Arab and Muslim allies (especially Egypt and Turkey) as they compared the decisive U.S. stance toward Iraq with the lack of decisiveness toward Bosnia.

Some especially thoughtful analyses that have appeared during the past week make it clear that the debate over U.S. foreign policy will not end precisely because there is not a yet a consensus over the exact details of a new foreign policy—even within the Administration itself.

It is now being realized how dramatically different the post-Cold War world is from the world order of the last generation. The underlying assumptions that guided U.S. policy during the past few decades are no longer relevant. At the end of 1992, in an article appearing in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, Theodore Sorenson, former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, wrote that the next President,

“America’s first post-Cold War President, will face a world of both unmatched opportunity and unprecedented opacity. Under pressure to choose a new course for the country, with the gravest consequences attendant upon that choice, he will be standing at a crossroads, looking at conflicting signposts and holding outdated maps.”

This new President, Sorenson wrote, must face long-deferred global problems and unlike his predecessors will not always be able to tell friends from foes. He concluded his piece, writing, “the next President…cannot lead unless he has a vision of where to go. But neither can he lead…unless the American people are willing to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership.”

It was in an effort to begin to articulate such a new vision that Tarnoff spoke his mind. His views, I believe, are widely shared within the Administration. However, since such a dramatic rethinking of America’s global role raises serious and unsettling questions, an intense debate has ensued.

There are those, for example, who prefer not to ask any questions at all. For them, the quick solution is to replace the Soviet menace with an Islamic threat and thus maintain intact many of the old assumptions and structures of U.S. Cold War foreign policy.

But such “quick fixes” will not suffice—nor will individual actions substitute for a well-articulated, comprehensive, long-term foreign policy.

Heeding Sorenson’s call, President Clinton must articulate a vision of the post-Cold War period and the leadership the United States will play in this new world. Only when this is done will the criticism subside. Until then, the debate will continue and will not be silenced by solitary actions no matter how spectacular or popular they may be.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa

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