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The Unilateral Party Is Over 
Published: Sep 25 2003
New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

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 world.

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 years now.

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 funny-sounding names.

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.


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