The Washington Times
January 15, 2001
By Alan W. Dowd
Bill Clinton is said to be obsessed with his legacy, and for good reason. A president's legacy has a way of defining his presidency: Harry Truman’s drew a road map for fighting the Cold War; Lyndon Johnson’s sentenced Richard Nixon to Vietnam; Ronald Reagan’s finished off the Soviet empire.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Clinton leaves behind a legacy that will shape America and the world for years to come. The Clinton legacy serves as an epilogue to the first Bush administration and a prologue to the second. Just as the younger Bush cannot foresee exactly where the story will take him, Mr. Clinton didn't know what lay ahead in December 1992, as the elder Bush dispatched 28,000 troops to Somalia on what was supposed to be a low-risk mission of mercy. Bill Clinton would never fully recover from the mistakes he made in the months that followed.
“We do not intend to dictate political outcomes,” Mr. Bush assured Somalia’s tribal leaders as the first Americans arrived. “We come only to feed the starving.” Within days, the starving ended. Within four months, the number of U.S. troops in Somalia had shrunk to 3,000. But Bill Clinton had placed them under U.N. command. And with Mr. Clinton’s blessing, the U.N. had expanded what was a limited humanitarian mission into an ambitious reconstruction of Somalia’s government — nation-building, as it came to be called.
With the Americans doing exactly what Mr. Bush promised they would not do, Somali leader Farah Aidid ignited a revolt. Mr. Clinton responded by sending hundreds of U.S. Army Rangers into Somalia to apprehend Aidid. Along the way, Defense Secretary Les Aspin denied Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery’s request for heavy armor to protect his troops, doubtless with the president’s knowledge.
The Rangers’ creeping mission would crescendo on Oct. 3, 1993, during a day-long gun battle with Aidid’s forces in the dusty alleys of Mogadishu. When the guns fell silent, 18 Rangers and hundreds of Somalis lay dead, triggering the beginning of the end of Operation Restore Hope. All told, Mr. Clinton's nation-building experiment would claim 30 American lives and 175 U.S. casualties.
Just eight days after the Mogadishu gunfight, Bill Clinton sent 193 troops to Haiti to install Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. Awaiting the Americans was a group of club-wielding thugs loyal to Haitian dictator Raoul Cedras. A standoff ensued, as the White House agonized over whether to take the beach by force and thus risk another Mogadishu or withdraw and risk further erosion of American credibility.
Choosing the path of least resistance, the president backed down and decided to deal with the consequences later. Those consequences would be far-reaching. Indeed, we are dealing with them today. By waving the white flag in Somalia and Haiti, Mr. Clinton sent a message around the world that could be understood in every language: America had lost its way and its nerve.
North Korea promptly expelled atomic energy inspectors and built a small arsenal of nuclear warheads. Iraq began to harass U.N. weapons inspectors. Belgrade flouted NATO's threats and intensified its vivisection of Bosnia. And Beijing tightened the noose around Taiwan.
By 1998, China was threatening nuclear war over Taiwan, North Korea was testing long-range missiles for its new warheads, Saddam Hussein was expelling U.N. weapons inspectors and Slobodan Milosevic was cracking down on Kosovo. Bill Clinton’s response to these challenges would leave friend and foe alike scratching their heads.
In Asia, it was called “strategic ambiguity” and “constructive engagement.” But it looked a lot like appeasement. In Iraq, it was called “low-grade war.” But the almost-daily air attacks on radar posts and SAM sites left Saddam’s nuclear weapons program and long-range missiles intact, making the raids a strategic failure. In Serbia, it was called “peace enforcement.” And it was completely avoidable. Mr. Clinton was forced to use bombs to get Mr. Milosevic’s attention because by 1999 his words carried no weight. Empty threats in Mogadishu, Port-au-Prince and Sarajevo gave Mr. Milosevic good reason to doubt the president’s resolve in Kosovo.
Regrettably, not even a 78-day air war could rehabilitate America’s word. Look to the Middle East for evidence of that.
Indeed, international troublemakers are no longer frightened by our military might — they’re emboldened by it. After watching Mr. Clinton pummel Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan and Sudan for half a decade, America's enemies have concluded that nothing short of an ICBM will give Washington pause. As a high-level North Korean official bluntly warns, “We're not going to be another Yugoslavia.” And Bill Clinton's cavalier way of war has driven them to that conclusion.
Perhaps the only thing more alarming than this global missile buildup is the state of America’s defenses against those missiles. Bill Clinton killed the Strategic Defense Initiative in one of his very first acts as president. For the balance of his presidency, he starved the Pentagon’s other anti-missile programs and assured Americans that there was no real missile threat to the United States. Now we know better.
In the span of just eight years, Bill Clinton not only inflamed the passions of America’s enemies, but left America unprotected from their weapons of vengeance. That may turn out to be a more lasting legacy than even he could have imagined.