Posted on August 01, 1994 in Washington Watch

The ceremonies surrounding the Jordanian-Israeli signing last week provided a short-lived but welcome boost to President Clinton, one that should not be underestimated.

Beleaguered by foreign crises on four continents (Haiti, Bosnia, Korea and Rwanda), the President needed an opportunity to show off a success in at least one area of foreign policy. The Washington signing provided two days of leading foreign policies stories that were not critical of the President Clinton, and pictures of Clinton demonstrating U.S. leadership replaced photos of the suffering in Rwanda and Haiti.

Those same two days silenced his critics. The combination of unresolved (and, some believe, unresolvable) foreign crises, nagging personal problems (from Whitewater and the Paula Jones case), the excruciatingly slow pace of the health care debate in Congress and the relentless criticism of his Republican opponents – they have all taken a toll on Clinton’s popularity. Recent polls show that the public’s approval of Clinton’s performance in office is a very low 40%. And while the public’s perception of his work on some foreign policy issues is positive, Clinton’s overall foreign policy rating is a dismal 34%.

In truth, the media is partially to blame for the severity of Clinton’s negative ratings. Daily stories and chilling photos of the tragedy in Rwanda, of the renewed defiance of the Bosnian Serbs and of chaos in Haiti create the impression of a world out of control. While polls also show that Americans do not want U.S. forces involved in any of these conflicts and do not place foreign policy high on their list of priorities – they remain, nevertheless, troubled by the feeling that their country, the world’s only superpower, can do nothing to provide stability and order to a world in need of it.

The President’s supporters point to his Administration’s many successes in foreign affairs and to his reordering of foreign policy priorities to emphasize economic issues as vital to U.S. national interest. As defined by President Clinton on the eve of his departure to attend the G-7 summit, the new priority for U.S. foreign policy is to “create jobs in a world of prosperity.”

In particular, supporters emphasize the President’s new three-pronged approach to post-Cold War foreign policy: promoting democracy, economic prosperity, and a defense posture adapted to the new environment. Within this framework Clinton’s supporters point to several success in addition to those associated with the Middle East.

First, Clinton won approval for a historic $4.1 billion in aid to Russia to support its democratic and economic reforms. Although many felt that there was no need for this program because the Cold War was over, Clinton successfully argued that the post-Cold War peace had yet to be won, and demonstrating this commitment to Russia’s reform program was a worthwhile investment.

Second, despite strong opposition from his own party, Clinton invested a great deal of political capital to enact NAFTA and secure side-agreements on human rights and other issues. He also saw through the final series of the Uruguay Round of GATT to make certain that the previous seven years of negotiations weren’t wasted. And on critical aspects of bilateral trade, Clinton has heavily involved his Administration on behalf of major U.S. industries.

Third, on the issue of arms control, Clinton has pledged to strengthen international arms control regimes and to take the lead in negotiating a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Administration supporters point to his steadfastness and careful diplomacy in pursuing U.S. nonproliferation goals in North Korea. They also point out that when Clinton took office, four of the former Soviet Republics had nuclear weapons, but the Administration has negotiated agreements with three of them to eliminate their entire nuclear arsenals.

Yet despite these achievements, the Administration is still harshly criticized in every medium for its handling of foreign policy. Only a few weeks ago the major news magazines were roundly and severely critical of the President. Said Time, “The smell of failure, fairly or unfairly, is beginning to gather around his global management team, and if he slips over that ill-defined line, he might soon be written off by friends and foes alike as incapable of crafting a strong or coherent American foreign policy.” And U.S. News and World Report was no less critical when it noted, “After having been run out of Somalia, faced down in Haiti, frustrated in North Korea and trumped at every turn in Bosnia, `assertive multilateralism’ as practiced by the Clinton Administration is earning a more accurate description. Oxymoron.”

In this context, the grand ceremonies in Washington last week brought a brief surge in national pride and respect for the role played by the President. Even former Secretary of State James Baker was caught up in the mood when on July 25 he had strong praise for the Democratic President, saying, “The approach the Clinton Administration has followed in the Middle East has absolutely been the right approach.”

Baker went on to more broadly praise the Administration’s performance, noting “I think they’re doing a very good job in the middle East. I think they’re doing a good job with respect to their policy toward Russia. ...they’re doing a good job in terms of their policy toward Iraq and the Persian Gulf … a very good job with respect to NAFTA and GATT.”

Baker offered only the qualification, “But in some other areas …there has been too much stop and go … to some extent there has been an erosion of American credibility.”

But the respite and the praise were short-lived. On July 27 at a foreign policy forum organized by the National Republican Party, the “big guns” of that party’s foreign policy establishment blasted President Clinton’s performance.

Baker did a quick turnaround for the forum. He accused Clinton of paying little attention to foreign affairs “until something goes wrong, and then all hell breaks loose.” He said that Clinton “has squandered American credibility and undermined our preeminence around the world.” Baker also accused Clinton of lacking “an overall plan and strategic direction” for his foreign policy,” which he said led to “flip-flops [that] debase the currency of U.S. credibility.”

Joining in the criticism were former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Cheney, who like Baker is a potential Republican candidate for President in 1996, stated that in his view the Clinton Administration was one of the “least competent in the 20th century,” and called Clinton’s policy on Haiti an “abject national embarrassment.” He also accused the Democrats of allowing the military to be dangerously under funded.

Kissinger, in his own professorial style, criticized the Administration’s lack of foreign policy experience, saying, “This Administration has not been able to distinguish between professorial concepts and foreign policy.”

The problems faced by the Clinton Administration are real and complex, and – despite Republican criticisms – are no fault of their own.

Each of the crisis areas addressed by critics are too complex to be open to simple solutions. And it is a fact that there is no consensus among the various branches of government as to how to resolve them. The Pentagon, for example, has been emphatic in its opposition to a military option for Bosnia or Haiti. The Central Intelligence Agency has been most resistant to provide support to the elected Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And Congress is deeply divided over whether or not to endorse the use of U.S. military forces to play a role in bringing order to any of these trouble spots.

What both Congress and the President know is that there is little U.S. public support for any military involvement.

Polls show that public opinion is against using U.S. military forces in almost every case. In Haiti, only 38% percent of Americans feel that vital U.S. interests are at stake, and only 45% support the use of force to restore democracy in that country. Polls have consistently shown that the U.S. public is opposed to sending troops to Bosnia, where only 31% feel the U.S. has a vital stake. And the numbers are even more grim with regard to Rwanda, where only 18% see vital U.S. interests at stake and only 28% favor the introduction of U.S. ground troops. Only in the Korean case is the public in favor of using U.S. troops, but the foreign policy establishment fears that a confrontation with North Korea will not be an easy one since it will not be supported by our regional allies or China.

Another factor compounding these problems facing the Administration, which is ignored by Clinton’s Republican critics, is that almost all of these crises have been “inherited” from, i.e. unresolved by, the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration knew, for example, of North Korea’s nuclear program as early as 1989, and they had no Bosnia, Haiti or African policy to speak of.

A final difficulty facing the Clinton Administration has been its inability to define new and consistent policies in response to these crises, mobilize public support behind their initiatives, and to build sufficient domestic and international confidence to implement their initiatives. The failure to win European support for their short-lived “lift and strike” initiative for Bosnia; the inconsistent policy toward Haiti (and the miscommunication which led to Panama’s rejection of Clinton’s “safe haven” initiative which forced the President to all but abandon his new policy after only two days); the refusal of U.S. allies to support Administration efforts to isolate Korea and Burma – these have all been embarrassing to the Administration and have caused questions about their ability to play a leadership role in international affairs. Failures such as those above have led some to suggest that Clinton has turned former President Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim of “Speak softly but carry a big stick” around to “Talk tough and carry no stick at all.”

While fault for these failures is being placed on the U.S. foreign policy team for not being more forceful or consistent, such criticism may not be completely fair. In the new uni-polar post-Cold War world, the U.S. cannot simply act alone to resolve each and every crisis. When allies, especially regional allies most affected by a particular crisis, reject U.S. initiatives; and when other countries, out of their own economic interest, seek to undercut U.S. efforts to build an international consensus regarding “outlaw” regimes,; when neither the U.S. military establishment nor the Congress (not to speak of U.S. public opinion) disavow the use of U.S. forces as a tool of international conflict resolution – in such a case it becomes difficult and even foolish to proceed.

Nevertheless, the Administration continues to wrestle with instituting changes in both its approaches to those conflicts and in the composition of the foreign policy team that will project and implement those policies.

Secretary of Defense William Perry has made it clear that the U.S. will respond to the Bosnia crisis by either using U.S. forces if the Serbs continue to reject peace initiatives, or to use U.S. troops as peacekeepers if the current internationally-proffered settlement is agreed to by all parties. Negotiations with the North Koreans have resumed, and efforts to resolve the crisis in Haiti continue, including the discussion of the use of U.S. military forces.

The least promising and potentially most costly U.S. venture now underway is the dispatching of U.S. troops to Rwanda and the “round the clock” airlift of humanitarian relief to Zaire to assist the million-plus Rwandan refugees in that country. Critics wrongly contend that intervention should have come sooner. They rightly argue, however, that such a highly visible U.S. involvement at this stage will only serve to put a U.S. stamp on the continuing disaster that can only get worse in the coming months.

Finally, it should be noted that efforts are underway to create a more visible, articulate and internationally respected stamp on U.S. foreign policy. The President, himself, has focused more intently on foreign policy issues in recent months. A number of foreign visits, an increased number of foreign visitors to the U.S. and the dispatching of his Administration’s top communications expert (David Gergen) to the State Department to assist the Department in better communicating its foreign policy objectives and achievements are all a part of this effort.

While Secretary of State Warren Christopher remains a highly regarded member of the President’s cabinet, other Administration officials have also begun to play more active international roles. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown has won high marks from U.S. business leaders and from foreign officials for his successful activist policies. And Vice President Al Gore has stepped up his role as a major player in foreign affairs, a role that will be once again highlighted in September when he visits three continents to promote the Administration’s foreign policy efforts.

Significant changes in either the foreign policy team itself or in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in one or more regions may yet occur before the end of 1994. As the recent signing on the White House lawn showed, success is sweet and can silence critics. What will propel the Administration forward in the coming months is the search for more areas of success in an effort to build greater domestic and international confidence in U.S. leadership.

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