The Wall Street Journal Europe
July 30, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd

Bill Clinton is, if nothing else, a great storyteller. And he spun quite a yarn at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Boston, as he lauded his administration’s commitment to “global cooperation” and panned his successor’s decision “to walk away from our allies.”  According to Clinton, George W. Bush traded in an international system “where we act alone only when we absolutely have to…[for] a world in which America acts unilaterally when we can and cooperates when we have to.” 

The only problem with this version of history is that it’s more fiction than fact.  

Clinton often acted unilaterally; and as a consequence, America’s allies were not always pleased with his foreign policy. But don’t take my word for it. As David Halberstam notes in War in a Time of Peace, some world leaders saw “Clinton as the embodiment of something they disliked greatly about America—the smug, remote superpower whose attitude on most things was ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you, and by the way, we’ll make all the important decisions.’”  

They had good reason to arrive at that conclusion. 

After a brief and bloody multilateral experiment in Somalia, Clinton charted his own meandering course through international affairs for the balance of his presidency. He unilaterally broke the UN arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia and sent weaponry to the outgunned Bosnian Muslims, using Iran as his conduit. Secretly arming the Bosnian Muslims angered many of America’s European allies, who, unlike Washington at the time, had deployed peacekeepers to the war zone. And although many Americans advocated lifting the embargo, few wanted to do so without allied support—fewer still wanted to enlist Tehran’s help in the process. 

Clinton did sign on to the Kyoto Treaty, but he refused to send it to the U.S. Senate for ratification (correctly judging that it would have been defeated).  

He opposed the global Landmine Treaty by arguing, rightly, “There is a line that I simply cannot cross—that line is the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.” Unlike their French and German counterparts, American troops stand guard in places like the 38th Parallel, where landmines could mean the difference between life and death.  

Clinton ordered America’s representatives to the treaty-writing conference that spawned the International Criminal Court to vote against the final document, although he reversed himself at the eleventh hour of his presidency. He knew the treaty would never pass muster with the Senate. The fact that Bush ended the charade by revoking Clinton’s last-minute endorsement of the ICC was simply a reflection of the will of the American people. 

It pays to recall that it was Madeleine Albright—Bill Clinton’s secretary state, not one of Bush’s “neocon” appointees—who called America “the indispensable nation.” Europe bristled when Albright defended America’s foreign policy by claiming that the United States “stands taller and therefore can see further” than other nations. It’s no wonder that the French coined the term “hyperpower” during the Clinton presidency. 

In his final five years as president, Clinton bombed no fewer than five countries—Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Serbia, and Sudan. Of those military operations, the UN pre-authorized precisely one (Bosnia).  

Supported by the flimsiest of intelligence, the missile attacks on Sudan drew criticism and questions from both sides of the Atlantic. Washington’s clumsily managed war over Kosovo put relations with Moscow and Beijing in a deep freeze. And Clinton waged war against Iraq virtually alone. Only Britain’s Tony Blair joined him. The 1998 barrage against Baghdad followed months of diplomatic gamesmanship at the UN and mischief in Iraq. After the UN Security Council balked at bringing Saddam Hussein into compliance, the US and UK targeted Saddam’s WMD capabilities, while other Security Council members shrugged or complained.  

Faced with similar circumstances inside Iraq and inside the Security Council in 2003, Bush sent US forces to war without the UN’s explicit approval. But this time, some two dozen countries would support the operation. The fact that Germany and France chose not to be among that number has more to do with their internal politics than with Bush’s “unilateralism.” As George Walden, the author and former British Member of Parliament, once observed, “The group dynamics of diplomacy are not always the straightest path to virtue.” 

In other words, multilateralism and diplomacy can present their own set of problems. This is not to say that “going it alone” is inherently preferable to acting in tandem with allies. Allies are important, as evidenced by the ongoing stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nation-building, like misery, loves company. And with 24 of NATO’s 26 current or future members basing troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, and 17 of them deploying troops on both fronts, America has plenty of company.  

 We can quibble about whether the Bush administration pushed too hard or too fast in 2003, but no one can seriously claim that its policies marked some radical departure. Like previous presidents, Bill Clinton acted unilaterally when he deemed it necessary to defend America’s national interests. George W. Bush has done nothing more or less. If elected, John Kerry will follow suit.

And that’s the real story—the one we didn’t hear from Bill Clinton.