Stumbling toward the brink

Clinton's disintegrating foreign policy should be of much more concern to the White House -- and the country -- than Kenneth Starr's latest chess moves.

Published June 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In his 1982 memoir, "Years of Upheaval," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted "how crucial a strong President is for the design and execution of a creative foreign policy." In deference to his boss, Richard Nixon, who spent considerable political capital to reopen relations with China, achieve ditente with the Soviet Union and craft interim accords in the Middle East, Kissinger humbly acknowledged, "My influence ... depended on presidential authority."

If only Madeleine Albright worked for a president willing to part with his political currency.

Over the past two weeks, President Clinton's reluctant and ineffectual stewardship of American foreign policy burst apart with all the force of a nuclear blast. As many as 11 blasts, actually. First India tested two atomic bombs in the Rajistan desert, catching Clinton and his intelligence services entirely by surprise. Despite Clinton's call for the new nationalist Hindu government in New Delhi to refrain from further tests, the Indians ignored his appeal and detonated three more devices. Thursday, Pakistan, India's regional rival, also dismissed Clinton's vehement appeals for restraint and tested possibly five of its own nuclear bombs, following this with yet another blast on Saturday. With the U.S. now punishing both countries with economic sanctions, American influence in the region has reached a historic low.

Could the United States have done anything to avert the dangerous new nuclear arms race on the subcontinent? Administration officials say no way. "It just goes to show that the United States, despite its might and influence, does not control everything that goes on in the world," shrugged White House spokesman Michael McCurry after the Pakistani tests. Other officials note that it was America's determination to prevent nuclear proliferation that brought on the new nuclear tests. Several years ago, the U.S officials showed their Indian counterparts American satellite photos of their preparations for a nuclear test, thus preventing the test from going forward. But the photos tipped off the Indians on how better to conceal their preparations this time.

Other analysts, however, say the problem goes far deeper than a high-tech game of hide-and-seek. When the new Indian government took power two months ago, it openly declared its intention to join the nuclear club. In response to American requests for clarification, India's new government then played down the remarks, saying they were meant for internal consumption only. The Clinton administration bought this explanation and relaxed its satellite surveillance. Critics charge it is that inattention, that willingness to trust but not verify, that lies at the heart of Clinton's foreign policy woes.

"You can't have an effective foreign policy by being a nice guy," says Edward Luttwak, a strategic consultant to several administrations and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "To have dealt with India effectively, Clinton would had to have sent some big-time, nasty secretary of state or defense secretary to New Delhi and covered them with all kinds of sinister threats. This person would have had to say, in effect, 'If you conduct these tests, we'll make life so miserable for you, your government will collapse.' In other words, you need a real son of a bitch out there and a president who is willing to back him up. And that's not Bill Clinton."

In the rough-and-tumble world of foreign affairs, Bill Clinton has tried to be a conciliator. In Africa earlier this year, he apologized to Rwandans for misguided U.S. policies that failed to prevent the genocide of 500,000 Tutsis. Clinton's nice-guy image was bolstered by the recent peace agreement in Northern Ireland, helped along by his special envoy, Sen. George Mitchell. Perhaps Clinton's most enduring image as a statesman is the picture of his encompassing embrace as the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn in 1993.

But Clinton's primary focus in foreign policy has been economic. If there has been one theme that he has stressed over and over, it is the importance of globalization and free trade and the use of those tools to grow the American economy. This is the side of foreign policy where Clinton really has been hands-on. And it is in this area of international trade -- as it relates to technology transfers to China -- where Clinton is now facing his worst foreign policy headache.

According to his Republican critics, Clinton permitted two U.S. aerospace companies to provide China with sensitive missile technology, which could then be diverted for military use, because the companies made generous contributions to the Democratic Party. The administration denies any political quid pro quo. Officials argue there wasn't sufficient evidence of diversion to hold up the transfer, which the administration defends as an example of its efforts on behalf of U.S. global competitiveness. The Republican-controlled Congress is now preparing to investigate the administration's China policy amid familiar cries of political pandering and partisanship.

But the real problem with Clinton's China policy goes far deeper than campaign finance chicanery. It's how this administration has consistently put global commerce ahead of global security. As Salon reported Friday, the Clinton administration did not press the issue when China, despite agreements with the United States, refused to allow inspections to ensure that U.S. exports of missile technology were not being used for military purposes. No inspections, no evidence of diversion.

The evidence of diversion, however, was
apparently clear to India. In a New York Times op-ed piece Friday, Indian journalist Prem Shankar Jha observed that what pushed New Delhi toward testing its nuclear weapons was intelligence information showing that after 1993, China began helping Pakistan develop long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear devices small enough to mount on a warhead. "But what tipped India over the brink," Jha wrote, "was the blind eye the United States turned to the danger that Pakistan posed to India. Intent on constructive engagement with China and Pakistan, the Americans have simply disregarded India's fears."

Clinton also appears to have disregarded Russian insecurities with his policy of expanding NATO eastward to include Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Veteran Russia hands like George Kennan, the architect of American's Cold War policy of containment of the Soviet Union, say Clinton's NATO policy simply makes no strategic sense. The Soviet Union has disappeared, Russia is now democratic, so, they ask, Where's the threat? The threat, these critics answer, now lies in Russia's reaction to the NATO expansion. Wary of Western intentions, the Russian parliament has yet to ratify the START II nuclear treaty. Meanwhile, Russian exports of nuclear and missile technology to Iran continue, despite U.S. protests.

If Clinton has mishandled his China and Russia policies, he also has left himself open to charges of a dangerous drift in his Middle East policy. From Israel to Iraq to the moderate Arab regimes, Clinton has frittered away the enormous influence and respect for the United States that his predecessor, George Bush, established by waging and winning the Gulf War.

To her credit, Albright tried to inject some life
-- and some backbone -- into the Arab-Israeli peace process by giving hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an ultimatum: Either agree to a further 13 percent withdrawal from the West Bank to restart negotiations with the Palestinians, or face a "re-examination" of U.S. policy toward the peace process. Netanyahu offered 9 percent and refused to go any further.

And what did Clinton do? Ever mindful of domestic criticism and the uninterrupted flow of Jewish contributions to the Democratic Party, he ordered Albright to retreat. Now U.S. officials are talking about giving Netanyahu more time, of creative ways to make the 13 percent demand more palatable. In short, Netanyahu has the Clinton administration exactly where he wants it -- slogging through percentages and thickets of technical detail instead of aggressively brokering a peace settlement. For extra measure, Netanyahu has enlisted House Speaker Newt Gingrich to hammer Albright as "an agent for the Palestinians." Her spokesman, Jamie Rubin, says Gingrich is undermining American interests, but the fact is Clinton is doing pretty well on that score all by himself.

The proof lies throughout the Middle East, where the coalition of moderate Arab states that Bush put together against Iraq has quietly disintegrated. For months, Arab leaders complained that Clinton's reluctance to confront Netanyahu was eroding his credibility in the region -- and exposing the leaders themselves to the harsh judgments of the Arab street. The coalition's real test came earlier this year when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein defied the United Nations over weapons inspections. Rattling his sabre, Clinton found himself virtually alone; no one, save Britain, was willing to take military action to enforce the inspections. When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan fashioned a compromise, Clinton grabbed it, which allowed him to climb back from the exposed limb where he had placed himself.

"In foreign affairs, it is important to be respected and feared, and that usually means the certainty that if you're pushed, you will use some kind of military force," says Peter Rodman, a former member of the National Security Council during the Reagan and Bush administration. "I don't think Saddam Hussein fears Bill Clinton."

As Clinton struggles with already existing foreign policy dilemmas, new problems are looming. Tensions between Serbians and ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslavian city of Kosovo threaten to ignite a wider conflict that could spread throughout the Balkans and draw in Greece and Turkey, both members of NATO. In Indonesia, economic problems continue to fester, threatening the stability of East Asia.

President Clinton, of course, cannot be expected to resolve all of the world's problems, but he can be expected not to make them worse. While campaigning for his first term, he made it clear that domestic policy, not foreign affairs, would be his most serious concern. This strategy produced results at home, where the American people are enjoying a long spell of peace and prosperity. But overseas there are gathering storm clouds that could shatter our tranquility if the U.S. government does not become a more effective player in the global arena. While Washington's political caste has become increasingly absorbed in its own intrigues and melodramas, the world has become a more dangerous place.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Bill Clinton India Middle East Pakistan Russia