Clinton has been cavalier about maintaining our military strength and our credibility, heedless about maintaining principles of international order, and weak in his response to the threats posed by terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In addition, his record has been lackluster in preserving and strengthening key alliances and in working to forestall the emergence of future great-power rivals.
Under Clinton, America's military supremacy has begun to erode, although the cost of maintaining it would entail much less sacrifice than during the Cold War. The Bush Administration had responded to the ending of the Cold War by designing a base force much smaller and cheaper than had been envisioned before the revolutionary changes in the Soviet Union. In the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton said that he would cut the defense budget another $60 billion below Bush's base-force level. This number did not reflect any reckless dovishness, he insisted; rather, it was based on alternatives to the Bush force worked up by such responsible, prodefense Democrats as Senator Sam Nunn and Congressman Les Aspin. But no sooner did Clinton take office than the Nunn-Aspin numbers were out the window in favor of a $127-billion cut necessitated by Clinton's effort to reduce the budget deficit without reducing domestic spending.
The Administration attempted to rationalize these cuts by ordering a bottom-up review of defense needs, but for all the ability of Aspin, by then Defense Secretary, and his deputy John Deutsch, the bottom-up review was necessarily a farce: its budget ceiling was dictated by the White House in advance. In the end, the Pentagon designed a force structure that it said would enable the United States to fight two regional wars at once, but independent studies by the Congres-sional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office concluded that the president's budget fell anywhere from $50 billion to $150 billion short of what it would cost to purchase that force. (To make matters worse, a panel of former chiefs of staff assembled independently by Senator John McCain charged that, even fully funded, the Clinton force was not adequate to fulfill its nominal two-war mission.)
The low priority Clinton has given to defense is symbolized by the sharp reductions he ordered in the development of strategic defenses. In opposing congressional measures to accelerate this program the Administration has argued that the threat of missile attack by secondary powers is still a decade away and that the United States should wait until then to deploy the most up-to-date system then available. But we underestimated the pace of Iraq's nuclear program and of North Korea's, just as we did again and again with the Soviet Union. And the notion that if we delay we will be able eventually to deploy a more modern system ignores the incremental, learning-through-experience way that such technologies evolve.
A Loss of Credibility
As careless as Clinton has been about maintaining America's military supremacy, he has been no less careless about maintaining our credibility. In May 1993, he drew a clear line with China about human rights: MFN would be renewed for one year only. At the end of that time, if China had not made demonstrable progress in seven specified areas, MFN would not be renewed again. When the year was up, Clinton announced that China had failed in five of seven areas but said that he would renew MFN anyway because he had decided that trade should not be linked to human rights.
When alarms arose about North Korea's nuclear program, Clinton declared that it would not be acceptable for Pyongyang to possess nuclear weapons, but when the CIA announced that it believed North Korea already possessed one or more such weapons, Clinton negotiated a deal allowing Pyongyang to keep whatever weapons it already had. In 1995, Clinton's trade representative foolishly went to the brink with our ally, Japan, in a dispute about sales of autos and auto parts and then backed down when the Japanese refused to concede. Again and again, Administration spokesmen threatened Serb forces in Bosnia with retaliation for their wanton attacks on civilians and UN peacekeepers, but these threats were almost never carried out. In the end, Clinton's envoy Richard Holbrooke secured the Dayton accords, which brought a halt to the killing; but the Serbs, and to a lesser extent the other parties, have violated the provisions that might have made a lasting peace possible--return of refugees, freedom of travel, protection of political rights, arrest of war criminals. And they have done this with impunity. Serbian mobs even stoned American troops without suffering retaliation.
While Clinton's policies have weakened the main instruments of world peace--America's might and credibility--his feckless performance in Bosnia has weakened the main principle of world peace, namely the rule against aggression. That was the rule that America upheld in its first post-Cold War test when we led in the liberation of Kuwait. President Bush, who performed so ably there, failed to apply the same principle to Bosnia. Candidate Clinton criticized Bush for this, but during his own first two and a half years in office he allowed the aggression to continue unchallenged. He bowed eagerly to leadership from Europe and the United Nations, while articulating a doctrine of aggressive "multilateralism." In this manner, Clinton attempted to escape the reality that in today's unipolar world, neither order nor lawfulness is likely to flow from any sources other than American power and leadership.
The Clinton Administration has attached high importance to discouraging nuclear proliferation, but the deal it cut with North Korea has damaged the global constraints on proliferation. For its flagrant defiance of the nonproliferation treaty, North Korea is being rewarded with $4 billion to $5 billion in energy subsidies, including new reactors deemed less susceptible (but not unsusceptible) to exploitation for weapon production. These reactors are of the same kind that Russia has agreed to sell to Iran. Although America has protested that deal, our protests ring hollow.
In Clinton's defense it may be said that North Korea's nuclear drive left us with few attractive options; but his decision to compromise the nonproliferation regime is impossible to reconcile with his go-slow approach to developing strategic defenses. Bribing North Korea has created an incentive for other states to flout the non-proliferation treaty, an incentive that is enhanced by America's vulnerability to nuclear missiles.
A Timid Response to Terrorism
Another global menace that Clinton has attempted to address is terrorism. Combating it is virtually synonymous with combating the America-hating regime in Iran, which is the main state sponsor of global terrorism. Clinton has been handicapped by our allies' reluctance to confront Teheran, but his own approach has been too timid.
His declared policy toward Iran and Iraq is dual containment, but in practice it seems that Washington seeks not merely to contain Iraq but to oust Saddam Hussein. It is widely believed that America will not agree to the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq until Saddam is gone. There are equally compelling reasons for seeking the ouster of the mullahs' terrorist regime in Iran (which also avidly pursues nuclear-weapons capability), but up until now Administration spokesmen have signaled to Teheran our desire to improve relations by declaring that we regard the current regime as permanent. The fatuousness of these overtures is suggested by indications of Iranian involvement in the recent Dhahran and TWA bombing. Meanwhile, Clinton's secretary of state, Warren Christopher, has boosted the prestige of Iran's partner in terrorism, the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, by paying dozens of personal visits there. He even docilely accepts Mr. Assad's snubs.
While lavishing attention on the likes of Assad, Clinton has a spotty record on maintaining ties with our friends. His inertia on Bosnia created serious strains in NATO though these seem to have been resolved by the Dayton accords. Other strains are mounting over new American legislation that imposes secondary boycotts against firms doing business with Iran, Libya, and Cuba. Clinton does not deserve primary blame for these: it must be laid either upon the allies for resisting this approach or upon Congress, where this legislation originated. Still, strong presidential leadership might succeed in forging a constructive compromise--say, by insisting that our allies join us in tougher measures against Iran, which poses a real current danger, while agreeing to a softer line on Cuba and Libya, which do not. No such leadership has been forthcoming.
Neither has strong leadership been exhibited on the question of NATO enlargement, despite the West's obvious interest in opening its arms to new free-market democracies that are desperately eager to join our alliance. On the other side of the world, Asia's astonishing economic growth has inspired many predictions that it will be the cockpit of global politics in the twenty-first century. Happily, America has a unique relationship of strategic cooperation with Japan, which is bound to remain Asia's most advanced country. What sense, then, does it make to tax that relationship repeatedly with high-handed attacks on Japanese commercial practices, especially when serious economists are divided about where the fault lies for various trade discrepancies?
Averting Future Conflicts
At a time of peace it is important not only to preserve friendships, but also to think ahead about possible future enemies. The two powers that have the greatest potential for confronting America with a new cold war are Russia and China. The point of such foresight is not to create self-fulfilling prophesies by treating these powers hostilely, but rather to consider courses of action that will avert such conflict. China is an emerging behemoth, likely to seek its day in the sun and already throwing its weight around in its region. But China is also changing, and it is most likely to keep on a benign path externally if it liberalizes and democratizes internally. After eating his words about tying China's trade privileges to its human-rights record, Clinton outlined alternative steps to promote liberalization in China--a new human-rights strategy, he called it. But after two years, none of those steps has been taken.
With regard to Russia, Clinton has worked diligently to support democracy, but he might have combined a warm, open-handed policy toward Russia with some greater firmness toward Russia's mischievous role in Bosnia, its extreme (and apparently self-defeating) brutality in Chechnya, and its illegitimate objections to NATO expansion. An important bulwark against any revival of Russian imperialism is a vibrant, independent Ukraine. Clinton's administration has recognized this and has placed Ukraine near the top of the list of American aid recipients. Still, it remains the case that under Clinton, America has spent far more seeking to strengthen democracy in Haiti--a small, sad country of no strategic importance and weak democratic prospects--than on China and Ukraine combined. Strange priorities!
Clinton's best performance has been in overseeing the completion and adoption of NAFTA and GATT. While trade is important, security remains the more important purpose of foreign policy, but Clinton came to office showing little interest in it. He wanted, he said, to "focus like a laser" on the domestic economy. And in 1993 he brushed aside a reporter's question about Bosnia by saying, "What I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems."
The closest thing to a security strategy advanced by his administration was "assertive multilateralism," born of the wish to deflect burdens and a starry-eyed view of the United Nations. But this "doctrine" was repudiated after a company of U.S. army rangers under UN mandate was decimated in the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993.
Since then, Clinton's foreign policy has been a jumble of improvised responses to crises and to foreign and domestic political pressures and calculations of electoral advantage. The results have not been disastrous because of the wide margin of security that accrued to America upon the demise of our superpower rival. But Clinton's uncertain stewardship has narrowed that margin and left the sinews of world peace weaker than he found them.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism (AEI Press, 1996).