The Unilateral Party Is Over
Published: Sep 25 2003
|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
Ask an American voter which political party he or she
trusts more on foreign policy, and they'll almost always tell you
GOP. That's based on the sense that Democrats are too softhearted,
unwilling to make the tough decisions needed to protect American
interests and safeguard peace, democracy and freedom around the
To test that assumption, let's compare two situations that come
as close as recent history allows to a matched pair: how Bush has
handled Iraq versus how Clinton handled the Balkans.
When the former Yugoslavia began to unravel during the Bush Sr.
administration, then-secretary of state James Baker famously refused
to intervene in the spiraling slaughter, because, as he put it, "We
don't have a dog in that fight."
Running hard against Bush I, candidate Bill Clinton scored points
with humanitarians by insisting he would do something about
the unfolding tragedy in the Balkans. Once in office, with "It's the
Economy, Stupid" as his mantra, Clinton actually delayed as long as
possible becoming involved with the Bosnian war. But when he finally
acted, he did so in a resolutely multilateral manner. Which turned
out to be the key to his success.
In 1995, at the height of international outrage over the Bosnian
slaughter, U.S.-led NATO forces moved in, decisively halting the
hostilities. U.S. Envoy Richard Holbrooke's whirlwind negotiations
culminated in the Dayton Agreement, which has kept the peace for 8
Flash forward to Kosovo, 1999. In response to yet more "ethnic
cleansing," Clinton quickly assembled an international coalition.
Military action, when it came, involved an almost even split of
combat aircraft between the United States and Europe (including,
most notably, the French). Germans provided ground troops, transport
planes and logistical support. Even the Serbophilic Russians agreed
eventually to send security forces. In both Balkan crises,
Republicans were quick to condemn military action and subsequent
peacekeeping efforts, even though the moves had considerable support
in the world community.
Dr. James Lyon directs the widely respected International Crisis
Group in Belgrade and holds a PhD in Balkan history. He harkens back
with some nostalgia to the days of American multilateralism.
"Clinton's foreign policy is certainly looking pretty good [by
comparison]," he says.
Many of the key architects of war crimes and genocide in the
region are today on trial in the Hague or pending prosecution.
Despite many difficulties, a multibillion dollar effort to rebuild
the region and to construct the institutions of a market-based,
pluralistic democracy is well underway, with heavy spending by all
parties. This includes money not just from the United States, but
from the European Union as a whole as well as from individual member
states. The foreign administrators in Bosnia and Kosovo,
respectively, are a Briton and a Finn. All programs fall under U.N.
auspices, with a de facto partnership between the E.U. and the
United States running things.
Bush the younger came into office a near-polar opposite of his
father. Remarkably uninformed about foreign affairs, he pitched what
voters, worried about paying their own bills, wanted to hear: No
hard-earned greenbacks for "nation-building" in far-off places with
Then, with 9/11, reality intervened. Bush appropriately took out
the Al Qaeda-shielding Taliban in Afghanistan, but then, unable to
find Osama bin Laden, he decided to get rid of Saddam Hussein, his
father's old bugaboo. Our European allies, unwilling to buy what was
obviously a mistaken or irrelevant or dishonest rationale for an
invasion, declined to approve, except for a few countries that
couldn't resist the pressure from Washington.
Having ridiculed and insulted allies offering legitimate
critiques, the Bush administration now finds itself in a deep hole
with too few resources and too few friends. Having demanded that the
world follow him into a mess, Bush now disingenuously touts
international participation -- in cleaning up.
The international community isn't buying it, partly because Bush
remains decidedly unapologetic about having ignored it in the first
place. In a speech to the United Nations on September 23, Bush
played to the domestic peanut gallery by defending the war and
restricting any mention of a U.N. role in Iraq to broadly supported
efforts such as UNICEF or the World Food Program -- and pointedly
avoiding the subject of a multilateral governing body for Iraq. This
drew criticism from French president Jacques Chirac and from U.N.
head Kofi Annan, among others, who clearly see this latest
half-hearted effort as the latest in a series of arrogant snubs.
The problem is that Bush has expended far too much of America's
-- and his own -- political capital in disparaging authentic
multilateralism. According to The Los Angeles Times, the
increasingly desperate United States has had to offer such plums as
easing its hard line with North Korea in return for South Korea
sending 10,000 troops to Iraq.
Professor Thomas Schwartz of Vanderbilt, a foreign policy expert
and author of an upcoming book on Kissinger, sums up the differences
between the Clinton and the Bush approach to world affairs: "[E]arly
in his administration... Clinton hid behind multilateral
institutions to avoid commitments. What he discovered -- I think in
quite a bitter way -- was that multilateral institutions don't work
without a clear American leadership. That leadership has to be
exercised carefully, and not in the high-handed manner the current
administration has done... Yugoslavia was the clearest example of
that, but I would argue that Clinton eventually absorbed that lesson
for most of our regional alliances and commitments. It's not easy --
and often very frustrating and occasionally unsuccessful at first.
But it is the only enduring way to shape an effective policy."
In short, Clinton wanted to leave the tough jobs to others, but
learned that the United States must provide leadership within the
context of an international response. Bush wanted to ignore the
others, and will now learn that you can't expect others to play
cleanup when you get in a bind.
Today, with the 2004 presidential primaries rapidly approaching,
the unresolved questions about multilateralism may finally be
debated. Gen. Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in Kosovo, has
drawn attention for showing that straight talk about multilateralism
doesn't equate with softness. We can only hope that Clark holds the
line in this regard, because Democrats now have a chance to argue
that avoiding bullying behavior in favor of real dialogue and
consensus military action is exactly what strong, wise societies do.