Bill Clinton's inept handling of American foreign policy has now gone beyond the bounds that limit criticism to water's-edge constraints or the gentle jabs of satire. If Clinton continues to lurch jerkily along his present course of confusion and contradiction, the world will become more dangerous, blood will be spilled unnecessarily and tyrannies that could have been prevented will prosper.
America's allies have learned to live with the uncertainty that results from the competing foreign-policy responsibilities of the President and Congress, but the Administration has turned confusion into a foreign-policy art form; Clinton's battle is not with Congress but with himself.
Put the same policy question to Warren Christopher, Les Aspin and Madeline Albright, and you'll get six different answers. Put the question to Clinton and you'll still get six different answers. The President has doubled back on himself so frequently, both in rhetoric and in action, that his words simply have no meaning any longer.
In Bosnia, Clinton went from a policy of American outrage and promised intervention to a policy of coordinated intervention in concert with our European allies, to a policy of intervening only if our allies approved, to one of not intervening at all.
The President then went before the United Nations and presented a confusing statement strongly supporting the United Nation's military efforts, but only under conditions so vague and narrow they could rarely be met. Then, having spelled out the criteria for the use of military force, Clinton sent more U.S. troops to Somalia under conditions that met none of the criteria he had just described.
It is tempting to see Clinton's helpless splashing about as a cross between a Shakespeare comedy and an "I Love Lucy" rerun, but the truth is, it's not funny.
In Bosnia, Serbian forces took advantage of American dithering--and our amazing decision to block the delivery of weapons to the people whose slaughter we were protesting--to press home their bloody attacks on defenseless villages. When we pressured the battered Bosnians to accept a humiliating and unfair peace agreement, the Serbs pounded the villages still more, to better position themselves for the final partition of what had been a Muslim homeland. Women and children were slaughtered in their own homes. "Never again," we said after the rape of Europe and the slaughter of Jews. This time, we were not guilty merely of nonintervention. This time, we were guilty of both conscious and unintentional complicity.
In Somalia, we drifted from a clear and simple mission--to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian relief--to an ill-defined attempt to take some of the weapons out of the hands of some of the Somalis, to a war of sorts against a warlord we couldn't find. In Haiti, the troops we sent weren't allowed to land. We brought them home.
While it is easy to find fault with Clinton's decisions, or the foreign-policy decisions of any President, what is significant here is not whether it is right or wrong to intervene militarily in the Balkans, or in Somalia, or in Haiti, but whether the United States, as the most powerful player on the world stage, has an obligation to set forth a clear and forthright policy upon which other nations may depend. It is predictability of response that deters aggression; it is certainty of support that encourages more positive actions, such as the allied contribution to the democratization of Eastern Europe.
Foreign policy is not merely domestic policy in another language. The United States must deal with sovereign governments with agendas of their own, their own armies and their own political considerations. It is important that the men who control those armies know what the United States will do and what it will not do; what it will and will not tolerate.
Bill Clinton is not the first President to send confusing signals; it was not Clinton, but George Bush, who allowed Saddam Hussein to misinterpret U.S. resolve in the Middle East, and it was not Clinton who allowed Manuel Noriega to believe he was immune from U.S. retaliation for his role in the international drug market. But it is this Administration's duty to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. In foreign policy, Clinton has not only failed to learn from the past, he has elevated fuzziness to standard procedure.
An America without purpose is a dangerous thing--as we learned in Kuwait, a quick war but one in which American soldiers died; as the townspeople of Bosnia learned when we dithered while they died. Clinton must get his foreign-policy house in order and he must do it quickly.