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Clinton: lost leader of the free world


Bill and Hillary Clinton at the presidential inauguration in 1993

Bill and Hillary Clinton at the presidential inauguration in 1993

AFP/Getty Images

Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the presidential campaign trail in 1992. Photo: Getty

Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the presidential campaign trail in 1992. Photo: Getty

AFP/Getty Images


Bill and Hillary Clinton at the presidential inauguration in 1993

During the 1992 US Presidential campaign, an exasperated President Bush remarked of his opponents "my dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos".

The two bozos - Bill Clinton and Al Gore - would go on to preside over the most prosperous decade of that American century. They had made it part of their campaign to attack the incumbent for being a "foreign policy president". And it worked. Of course, in power, President Clinton - at the outset depicted as something of a naïf when it comes to international matters - had to get some class of "grand strategy" together. This led to claims from his critics - and they were/are legion - that he made it up on the spot. This is something that British historian and academic, James D Boys, has set out to refute in his book Clinton's Grand Strategy: US Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World.

If the past is indeed a foreign country, then it's easy to view the Clinton Years as falling squarely between two eras, ie the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror.

Bill Clinton had a "natural inclination toward domestic politics" and little foreign experience, despite having been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. After a year of not leaving the country, he would go on to be the most travelled president in history.

This book benefits the interested if not navel-gazing student of American politics when it puts some flesh on the bones of the characters featured therein. When the youthful Bill and Hillary arrived in Washington, we're told that they thought they could do it all themselves, resulting in some of the most clever and experienced Democratic Party operatives being sidelined.

"Both were used to being the centre of attention in Arkansas and were determined to continue this at the White House."

There was friction between Clinton and Chief of Staff Colin Powell over the issue of gays in the military and the President's record during the Vietnam War.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are only three mentions of Northern Ireland. Early in his campaign, Clinton risks upsetting London by floating the idea of giving Gerry Adams a US visa. As Boys writes: "Clinton's Irish policy, cloaked in the mantle of support for human rights, was designed to attract votes".

No administration inherits a clean slate and Clinton inherited an ongoing operation in Somalia. Bush only deployed troops after his electoral defeat. A multilateralist policy was decided upon and the US ceded command to the UN, reducing its numbers accordingly. This "emboldened Somali warlords" and on October 3, 1993, two Black Hawk helicopters were lost and 18 soldiers died - a figure that Colin Powell remarked wouldn't have merited a news conference during Vietnam. But this event shaped much of Clinton's future thinking. The "Mogadishu Line" had been drawn.

Assertive Multilateralism was dead, he refused to deploy troops to Bosnia and Madeleine Albright vetoed a UN plan to send 5,500 troops to Rwanda.

The fallout from the Somalia debacle gives us one of the few glimpses of Clinton the man - his "well documented but well-hidden temper erupted". Foreign policy, it seems, was placed in the hands of his underlings.

And in the case of the Balkan crisis, it was probably just as well. While Jacques Chirac would quip that the post of the Leader of the Free World was vacant, for Clinton's Czech-born Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Bosnia was "very personal and visceral".

And after Srebrenica, the US could stand back no longer, finally engaging under the NATO colours. The lessons from Somalia were learnt - "never lose command of the mission and plan for an exit before the troops arrive".

The Dayton Accords would follow. They were closely linked with special envoy Richard Holbrooke, a man who never got the top job of Secretary of State as by all accounts "he was a pain in the ass and… he remained a pain in the ass his whole life".

Much of the detail of this book is assembled from speeches, contemporary accounts and interviews with some of the principles. And there are glimpses of the mechanics of the White House that will appeal to West Wing fans everywhere. For instance, by 1994, it was decided that Foreign Policy briefings would be doubled in duration - to all of 30 minutes! This is maybe the most enlightening detail in terms of the White House priorities at the time.

Long before the events of 9/11, terrorism was a very real threat in the US. There were bombs at the World Trade Center in 1993, Oklahoma City (1995) and the Atlanta Olympics (1996). The aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing "allowed Clinton to find his presidential voice and his role as Empathiser-in-Chief".

By 1998 Osama Bin Laden is top of the terrorist watch list. And with impeachment debates raging at home, Clinton's targeting of terrorist bases abroad lead to accusations of his 'wagging the dog'.

The Democrats were keen to play down any notion of a crusade and one unearthed memo bears the directive 'Find a Muslim!' Presumably to give credence to the administration's policy, though it could clearly have been better phrased.

Clinton's biggest successes occurred elsewhere. NATO expansion in Europe was of great importance to the US. As it favoured the strategically important Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic rather than Ukraine or Belarus for example, it showed the Grand Strategy in action, ie 'pragmatic realism first, idealism always a close second'. Though how close a second remains open to debate. Clinton's hand was most clearly seen when it came to Prosperity Promotion, and is best described as a "shift from Cold War militarism to post-Cold War economics". And while important, the description of the successes of NAFTA and the Uruguay round of the GATT talks pale in comparison to the Bosnia debates.

At the end of the decade, "the vast majority of Americans remained blissfully unaware that a new global strategy had been devised" and the Clinton Administration "was unable to define the era through which it governed". Many readers of this book might find themselves in the same position.

Today the lessons of Somalia continue to be felt, with President Obama displaying a great reluctance to deploy troops at the height of the Arab Spring. Perhaps the Clintonian legacy is one of "leading from behind".

But the moment of greatest poignancy in the book comes during a private meeting between Clinton and his successor before the handing over of power. Speaking to George W Bush, he said "one of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn't get [bin Laden] for you, because I tried to".

And we all know what happened next.


Clinton's Grand Strategy: US Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World

James D Boys

Bloomsbury, pbk, 320p; €28.50

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091709350

Indo Review