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U.S.: Experts See Clinton's Foreign Policy Legacy As Mixed

  • Robert McMahon

U.S. President Bill Clinton oversaw the historic expansion of NATO to three former communist nations in Central Europe. He also led NATO's largest military campaign -- the bombing of Serbia -- which helped end the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. But foreign policy experts give mixed grades for Clinton's overall performance in international affairs. In this first of a two-part series on the outgoing president's legacy, RFE/RL's Robert McMahon looks at the foreign-policy record of the Clinton administration.

New York, 17 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Viewed individually, President Bill Clinton's foreign policy achievements in his eight years in office make up an impressive list.

Clinton's administration pushed for major changes in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, including its expansion to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary in the spring of 1999. And even as the alliance was expanding, it was embarking on a campaign of air strikes that led to the ouster of Serbian forces from Kosovo and the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In Bosnia, a peace agreement brokered five years ago by the Clinton administration has begun to show real progress with the recent return of tens of thousands of minorities to their homes. U.S. officials could boast that their policies of containing Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and promoting democracy were bringing positive change to the Balkans.

Clinton's administration also helped negotiate the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, leaving Russia the sole remaining nuclear power from the former Soviet Union.

There were also advances in world trade, notably the agreement on a North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the approval of permanent normal trade relations with China.

Clinton's chief foreign policy aide, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, told a gathering of foreign policy experts on 11 January at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that a mere glance at the world could attest to the impact of this president.

"As president Clinton leaves office, America is by any measure the world's unchallenged military, economic, and political power. The world counts on us to be a catalyst for coalitions, a broker of peace, a guarantor of financial stability internationally."

But taken collectively, some foreign policy experts say, Clinton's efforts do not add up to any sort of coherent strategy for managing world affairs or advancing U.S. interests. One of those critics is Richard Haass, the director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution -- a prominent Washington think-tank -- and a member of the National Security Council of former Republican President George Bush.

Haass tells RFE/RL that Clinton mostly took an ad hoc, crisis-management approach to international affairs rather than articulating a foreign policy strategy that could have a lasting impact. He says Clinton wasted an opportunity to use U.S. influence to build a more secure world.

"It's at best a mixed record, but I think the real criticism of Mr. Clinton and his chief lieutenants is that simply they inherited a world of tremendous potential for the United States and don't have much to show for it."

Instead, Haass says, Clinton's foreign policy has mostly amounted to a series of piece-meal approaches to major issues. On Iraq, for example, Haass says the Clinton administration's policy was marked by short-term reactions and has allowed the erosion of the anti-Saddam Hussein alliance built during the Gulf War 10 years ago.

When the United States decided to take forceful measures in response to Iraqi violations of UN Security Council resolutions, Haass says the U.S. actions lacked any lasting purpose. The Clinton administration dropped bombs on Iraq for four days during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 and then stopped. UN weapons inspectors have not been allowed into the country since then, leaving Saddam with more freedom to build and stockpile forbidden weapons of mass destruction.

Haass also blames Clinton for allowing domestic politics to influence the United States' conduct abroad on too many occasions. One example he cites was Clinton's decision to rule out the deployment of ground forces in Kosovo -- when the air campaign was still underway -- because polls had shown concern among Americans for casualties.

"Foreign policy was never a priority for this administration, so it should not surprise that political concerns often came first."

Clinton was elected in 1992 mainly for his promises to improve the U.S. economy, and the long prosperity of the Clinton years will be one of his greatest legacies. But world affairs sometimes intruded on his domestic agenda during his first four-year term in office, and in some areas he seemed little prepared to deal with them.

In 1993, the administration expanded its mission in Somalia from humanitarianism to aggressive peacemaking. But after a battle with Somali rebels left 18 U.S. servicemen dead, the United States abandoned the mission and moved away from such multilateral engagements for the next few years. It was during that time that the Rwanda genocide occurred. Also at that time, ethnic cleansing worsened in Bosnia before NATO's later involvement set the stage for the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

Clinton's administration acted more confidently on the world stage during his second term (1997-2001), promoting NATO expansion and leading the alliance through the Kosovo crisis.

At the end of the bombing campaign in June, Clinton spoke of the importance of international intervention when human rights abuses on the scale of ethnic cleansing are committed.

"Because of our resolve, the 20th century is ending not with helpless indignation but with the hope for affirmation of human dignity and human rights for the 21st century."

Clinton is also seen as having a mixed record on relations with Russia and China. Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, emphasized the positive during his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. He said Russia and China, with U.S. assistance, have moved closer to international structures in areas such as trade, strengthening their development as responsible world partners.

Berger said Russia has far to go in reforming its economic and political systems, but he says its achievements are undeniable.

"Defying predictions of many, the Russian people have rejected a return to communism or turned toward fascism. In five straight elections, they have voted for a democratic society with a market economy that is part of the modern world."

But critics like Haass say the Clinton administration wasted an opportunity to improve relations with Russia and China and engage them in international security issues. They say that for too long Clinton's policy toward Russia called for heavy involvement with the administration of President Boris Yeltsin and attempts to steer economic reform when they should have focused on political reform and Russia's external policies.

Haass also says the Clinton administration failed to move beyond Cold War policies on reducing nuclear inventories and on establishing a new nuclear weapons policy.

"The fact that after eight years U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals pretty much look the way they were when Mr. Clinton became president seems to me a sign that we had our priorities wrong, and it should have been far more of a priority of American foreign policy to bring down these arsenals. Indeed I think that's going to be an opportunity for the incoming administration."

But administration officials involved in defense and security matters have said in recent weeks that Clinton has built a proud record at a time of shifting global realities. The major threats to U.S. interests were countered during this period, they say, and the United States proved to be an effective peacemaker.

Berger and others say that as the world continues to move away from the era of superpower competition, Clinton has positioned the United States well to cope with and capitalize on trends toward globalization.

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