American Outlook
Winter 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

Fresh from a daring attack on America’s homeland, an army of Islamic terrorists is roaming the earth and planning further attacks. At the same time, North Korea is brandishing brand-new nukes and threatening to destabilize an entire continent. And somewhere in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is building his own arsenal of hideous weapons, playing games with the UN, and plotting revenge against his most bitter enemy.  

Although these stories are dominating today’s news, what makes them especially interesting is that they also happened to dominate yesterday’s news, specifically President Bill Clinton’s first term. This unpleasant feeling of déjà vu speaks volumes about the former president’s foreign policy. 

Clinton’s uncanny ability to change positions effortlessly made him a political juggernaut. But it was this same trait that made his foreign policy so ineffective. As Clinton himself fumed over his administration’s inability to settle on a course in the Balkans, “We’ve got to find some kind of policy and move ahead.”[1] Some say this haphazardness was a sign of the times, that Clinton’s ever-shifting foreign policy was directly related to the murky nature of the post-Cold War era. However, the fact that today’s most pressing challenges are just distorted versions of yesterday’s reminds us that foreign policy demands consistency and close attention in every era. Just as actions have consequences, so too does inaction. 

October Origins

North Korea, Iraq, and al Qaeda festered into the problems they are today because of Clinton’s mishandling of his very first foreign-policy challenge—Somalia. At the closing hours of his presidency, President George H.W. Bush dispatched 28,000 troops to Somalia. Their mission was limited to protecting food shipments from tribal warfare and looting. Within days, chaos turned to order, and within four months, the number of U.S. troops in Somalia had shrunk to 3,000. But Clinton, now president, had placed them under UN command. With his blessing, the UN expanded what was a limited humanitarian mission into an overly ambitious reconstruction of Somalia’s government infrastructure.  

Tribal leader Farah Aidid soon rallied thousands of Somalis against what had become an occupying army. After being ambushed by a pro-Aidid mob, UN troops fired on a group of protesters, killing dozens of Aidid supporters. Clinton then sent hundreds of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force troops into Somalia to apprehend Aidid. Significantly, Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery’s request for armor was denied by the now-deceased Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, doubtless with the president’s knowledge.  

The Rangers launched a brutal, 60-day war against tribal strongholds, culminating on October 3, 1993, in a day-long gun battle with Aidid’s forces in the dusty alleys of Mogadishu. When the guns fell silent, 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis were dead, triggering the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Somalia. The impact of this episode on the young president, his foreign policy, and ultimately the world cannot be overstated. As historian David Halberstam observes in his history of U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s War in a Time of Peace, “It was for the Clinton team not unlike the Bay of Pigs 32 years earlier, a devastating blow for a new administration.”[2] However, as Halberstam adds, Clinton lacked the confidence and credentials of the World War II veteran Kennedy, making it much harder for him to regain his foreign-policy footing.  

That much was clear just a few days after the battle in Mogadishu, half-a-world away. Clinton had promised to install Haiti’s democratically elected president (Jean-Bertrand Aristide). He backed up his words by dispatching a small force of 193 troops to Port-au-Prince on October 12, 1993. Waiting for the Americans was a group of club-wielding loyalists of Haitian strongman 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. “Rarely,” Halberstam recalls, “had the United States looked so impotent.”[3] 

Clinton’s greatest failure that fateful October was not overreaching in Somalia so much as it was retreating from Haiti. Whether democracy in Haiti—or order in Mogadishu—is worth risking American blood is open to debate; however, the importance of American credibility is not. Clinton failed to grasp this in 1993. By waving the white flag in Haiti, he sent a message around the world that could be understood in every language: America had lost its way and its nerve. North Korea, Iraq and al Qaeda got the message. 

A Failed Test

It is neither fair nor constructive to blame Clinton for the existence of these threats. After all, North Korea has been trying to shift the balance of power on the peninsula for 50 years. Saddam has pursued plutonium, poison and plague since he murdered his way to power in 1979, and he has craved American blood since 1991. By design, al Qaeda is hard to find and even harder to destroy, and its now-conquered base camp of Afghanistan was a basket-case long before Clinton arrived in Washington.

However, it is both fair and constructive to examine what Clinton did—or failed to do—to reduce these threats. As Paul Wolfowitz, now assistant secretary of defense, explained in the heady days of Bill Clinton’s first term, “Every administration is responsible for what it makes of the situations it inherits.”[4] This is the only fair measure of any foreign policy.

As he ascended the presidency, now a full decade ago, Clinton pledged “to reassert American leadership in the post-Cold War world and to advance our values around the world.” Anyone who maintained even a casual interest in foreign affairs could recognize the hollowness of that phrase. With the collapse of communism in Europe, reunification of Germany, fall of the Soviet empire, and defeat of Iraqi aggression serving as the key signposts of the years immediately preceding the Clinton era, neither America’s leadership nor its values needed to be “reasserted” in 1992-93. The elder Bush had ended the Cold War peacefully and launched the post-Cold War era deftly. As Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum would later note, “The real legacy of the Bush administration was ... unprecedentedly good relations with all the major centers of power—Western Europe, Japan, China, and Russia.”[5]  

Thanks in part to its working partnership with those power centers, Washington had prodded North Korea into opening its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1991-92. However, by late 1993, Pyongyang was balking at that agreement and threatening to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As he had with so many others, North Korea’s wily dictator Kim Il-Sung was testing America’s inexperienced president. Bill Clinton failed the test.  

By 1994, the North Koreans made good on their threats to bolt the NPT. They punctuated their intentions by ringing the Yongbyon nuclear facility with anti-aircraft batteries, lining the inter-Korean border with 11,000 artillery pieces, threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” and leaning their million-man army into the demilitarized zone. Defense Secretary William Perry prudently ordered the chiefs to develop plans for a preemptive strike against Yongbyon. However, because the attacks, in Perry’s words, would likely result in “a spasmodic lashing out by North Korea’s antiquated but large and fanatical military across the DMZ,”[6] the Pentagon was preparing for worse.  

On the heels of the bloody ambush in Mogadishu and humiliating retreat off the coast of Port-au-Prince, Clinton had no stomach for preemptive war in North Korea—and who could blame him? As the Congressional Research Service concluded in a mid-1994 report about North Korea’s nuclear program, “The tactical success of a counter-proliferation mission could be lost in the consequences of another war on the Korean peninsula.”[7] Given the choice between making war and making a deal, Clinton chose the latter, even after the CIA concluded that Pyongyang already had at least one nuclear weapon. The deal went something like this: If you don’t build anymore nuclear weapons, we’ll build nuclear reactors for you; and as a small token of our appreciation for your patience, we’ll send you 500,000 tons of oil every year while you wait.   

Like Chamberlain’s deal at Munich, it was an offer Pyongyang couldn’t refuse. After all, the North got everything it wanted, and as we now know (and as many warned in the 1990s), the North Koreans kept everything they wanted. The drive for nuclear weapons went forward, albeit underground; the push for missiles continued; and eight years later, Pyongyang brashly admits what only the most naïve refused to suspect—that it has joined the no-longer exclusive club of nuclear powers.  

According to former Secretary of State James Baker, this “is the natural, foreseeable result of the 1994 Framework Agreement between the United States and North Korea.” In Baker’s view, the Framework turned a bipartisan policy “based on strength into one based on accommodation, compromise and appeasement.”[8] Indeed, the real tragedy of the present situation on the Korean peninsula is that Clinton had many more choices at his disposal than simply war and appeasement—both of which, in an odd sort of way, reflect an easy way out. “War,” as the Roman historian Sallust once observed, “is easy to begin but difficult to stop.” Appeasement, on the other hand, is easy simply because it delays the hard decisions and defers them to someone else.  

So what middle-ground solution was left? For starters, the administration could have done what President George W. Bush directed his national-security team to do when Pyongyang tested him: cajole the Chinese into demanding a nuclear-free peninsula, freeze all non-humanitarian assistance bound for Pyongyang, and lead Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo in an unlikely diplomatic counter-offensive. The Bush White House did all this in the span of a few weeks. 

Further up the response ladder, Clinton could have taken a more strategic view, as Reagan did with Moscow: With North Korea rattling nuclear sabers and testing medium- and long-range missiles, perhaps Washington should have concluded that the time was right for America’s regional allies to pool their technological resources and construct an overlapping web of theater missile-defense systems. And if Pyongyang wanted to make the peninsula a nuclear tripwire, perhaps Washington should have redeployed nuclear weapons on the southern side of the DMZ. (The first Bush administration withdrew them in 1991.) Simply put, if the North Koreans wanted an arms race, we certainly could have given them one. For that matter, we still can.  

Still further up the ladder, Clinton could have taken a page out of President Kennedy’s playbook and quarantined North Korea by air, land and sea, daring Kim to fire first and demanding that he end his drive for nuclear weapons and open up his weapons sites.  

Of course, Clinton didn’t climb that ladder. We now know that the Korean Missile Crisis of 1993-94 didn’t end nearly as well for the United States as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As a result, the current administration is left with few options in dealing with Pyongyang—none of them good. As military historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it, “The sad truth is that once an outlaw regime possesses nuclear weapons, it wins special consideration as the range of our own countermeasures diminishes.”[9] Indeed, by playing kick the can with America’s security, Clinton may have unwittingly made war more—not less—likely. And if war returns to the peninsula, a nuclear-armed North Korea will make it more—not less—bloody than before. The words of a high-level North Korean official should give us pause: “We’re not going to be another Yugoslavia.[10] 

Phony War

Clinton’s finger-crossing foreign policy was slightly adjusted when it came to al Qaeda. While he didn’t outright appease Saudi expatriate Osama bin Laden, he may have done something worse: He made a halfhearted attempt to bring the terror-master to justice. Like the Framework Agreement, this decision gave the appearance that something was being done, but appearances don’t always translate into reality. Just consider what passed for a counter-terrorism policy during the Clinton era:  

In 1993, Islamic terrorists backed by bin Laden threw their first blows at the World Trade Center, killing 6 Americans and injuring 1,000. The Clinton White House responded with indictments and prosecutions. Later that year, Washington linked bin Laden to the ambush in Mogadishu. The Clinton White House responded by hastily withdrawing the troops. In the summer of 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. military's Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, claiming 19 airmen and injuring 200 others. The Clinton White House responded with indictments and deportations. In 1998, al Qaeda bombed a pair of American embassies in East Africa, murdering 224 civilians and injuring more than 5,000. This time, the Clinton White House responded with a volley of 75 cruise missiles, another indictment of bin Laden, and a $5 million bounty.  

The indictment and bounty had no tangible effect. Although they leveled an abandoned terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and razed a chemical-weapons facility on the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan, the missile strikes had no real effect, either. The “chemical-weapons facility” turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant, and bin Laden emerged from the rubble unscathed. In fact, after withstanding a mighty blow from the U.S. Navy, bin Laden was catapulted into mythic hero status among Islamists. By mid-1999, CIA Director George Tenet conceded that bin-Laden’s network could virtually strike American targets at will. In October 2000, al Qaeda did just that, using a rubber boat to blast a hole in the side of the USS Cole and kill 17 sailors. The Clinton White House responded not by sending troops into Yemen, but FBI agents. Less than 11 months later, bin Laden would send his own troops to strike America’s homeland. 

Owing to the attention he gained as the prime target of Washington’s phony war, bin Laden grew more popular as America grew ever weaker in his eyes. Like a vicious cycle, America’s perceived weakness fueled al Qaeda’s attacks, which fueled bin Laden’s popularity, which—left unchallenged—further fueled bin Laden’s perception of American weakness.  

Again, it didn’t have to be this way; and again, this criticism isn’t a case of 20-20 hindsight: In 1980-81, Reagan offered his successors an instructive example of how to deal with terrorists by demanding that Iran free all 52 American hostages and leaving the consequences of Iran’s failure to comply deliberately and chillingly vague.[11] Of course, a president with no track record, like Reagan in 1981, has a better chance of ending or deterring terrorist activity than a president with an inconsistent record, like Clinton in the mid-1990s. Yet all is not lost when intimidation fails. In 1986, after Libyan-trained terrorists bombed a Berlin disco filled with American servicemen, Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to attack the government that spawned them. Libya’s army of terrorists stayed clear of Americans after the raids, and Qadhafi’s involvement in anti-US terrorism ceased.  

Low Grades

As with so many of President Clinton’s foreign-policy fumbles, Iraq was considered a success before he arrived in Washington, albeit a limited one. His predecessor’s foreshortened blitzkrieg allowed far too much of Saddam’s army to escape and survive to kill another day. Still, the groundwork for Iraq’s long-term containment and disarmament was laid by the elder Bush: a UN weapons-inspection regime, international sanctions, and support for Iraqi opposition movements—all backed by U.S. air power.  

However, Bill Clinton seemed to lack the attention span required by such a policy. After all, Clinton had retreated from Mogadishu, dithered off the coast of Port-au-Prince, wrung his hands over Bosnia, and appeased Pyongyang—and that was just in his first term. The Iraqi dictator took notice. Soon, he was driving a wedge between Washington and key members of the UN Security Council. As international cooperation on Iraq waned, Saddam reopened his weapons of mass destruction factories, blocked UN weapons inspectors, challenged US-enforced no-fly zones, and moved against protected areas near Turkey and Kuwait.  

After almost six years of this mischief, the president finally fired back at Saddam in December 1998. The four-day air campaign was by far the largest operation against Saddam since the Gulf War, but it was roundly dismissed as meaningless since Saddam and his nuclear-weapons program survived the barrage. Although the operation ended by Christmas, the air war on Iraq did not. Searching for a policy, the president authorized what came to be called “low-grade war” against Iraq—weekly or even daily air attacks on targets of opportunity such as radar posts, SAM sites, and other strategically irrelevant facilities on the extreme periphery of Saddam Hussein’s power. Rather than a means to an end, the raids became an end in and of themselves. In fact, they became so ubiquitous that they weren’t even reported in the press by the end of the Clinton presidency. To get an idea of the scope of this low-grade war, consider an eight-month stretch in 1999 that saw American and British pilots fire more than 1,100 missiles and attack 359 targets inside Iraq. The raids continued after Clinton’s departure, even intensifying as the second Bush administration prepared to topple Saddam’s regime.  

Rather than weakening Saddam, the president’s low-grade war permanently fractured the Gulf War coalition, kept UN weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and pushed the Iraqi people into Saddam's corner. To make matters worse, when a bipartisan majority in Congress overwhelmingly approved a plan to train and equip Iraqi opposition groups with military and humanitarian aid, Clinton signed the bill but refused to implement it. Again, it seems the appearance of action was more important than action.    

Hence, on the international political front, Saddam grew steadily stronger than he was at the end of the Gulf War—and the United States grew weaker. For evidence of this, just look to the UN Security Council, which debated eight weeks before passing a resolution demanding that Baghdad observe existing resolutions. 

Hard Lessons

All of this should serve as a lesson to the current president. His actions and inaction will have long-term, perhaps unforeseeable, consequences. For example, Bush’s seemingly dichotomous policy of using military force to disarm a nuclear pretender in Baghdad, while using diplomacy to coax the nukes away from Pyongyang, may deter other nuclear hopefuls. Or it could just as well embolden them. We simply won’t know for a few years.  

By that time, this unpleasant sense of déjà vu will probably have subsided—but don’t be surprised if it returns.   


[1] David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace, New York: Scribner, 2001, p. 317.

[2] Halberstam, p. 264.

[3] Halberstam, p.273.

[4] Paul Wolfowitz, “Clinton’s First Year,” Foreign Affairs January/February 1994.

[5] Michael Mandelbaum, “Foreign Policy as Social Work,” Foreign Affairs January/February 1996.

[6] William Perry and Ashton Carter, “Back to the Brink,” Washington Post, October 20, 2002.

[7] Richard Cronin, et. al., “North Korea’s nuclear weapons program: US policy options,” CRS Report for Congress, June 1, 1994.

[8] James Baker, “No more caving on North Korea,” Washington Post October 23, 2002.

[9] V. Hanson, “Korea is not quite Iraq,” NRO, January 10, 2003.

[10] David Sanger, “U.S. Eases Economic Sanctions Against North Korea,” The New York Times, September 18, 1999.

[11] Paul Kengor/Jacob Smith, “Reagan’s saber rattled Iran,” Washington Times, January 20, 2002.