The Blog

CHRISTOPHER REDUX

The Career and Record of George Mitchell

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



"Sure, it's not going as well or as fast as every"one would like, but it's . . . an alternative to K.Jconflict. The participants are still talking. . . . You take a step forward, a step backward. You go back and try again. What is the alternative? There is no alternative."


These words sound like they come straight from the mouth of Warren Christopher, the outgoing secretary of state and author of the stupefyingly titled Diplomacy: The Neglected Imperative. Actually, they were spoken by George Mitchell -- the man whom Christopher is reported to be pushing as his successor -- about his efforts to settle the conflict in Northern Ireland. They suggest the ways in which the former Senate majority leader may simply be the second coming of Warren Christopher to Foggy Bottom, albeit with a tad more personality and a somewhat sharper partisan and liberal edge than Christopher.


He would be a curious choice. During his 14 years in the Senate, Mitchell displayed little abiding interest in foreign policy: He never secured a seat on the foreign affairs or armed services committees. His most notable foreign- policy moment came in 1991, when he led the opposition to a declaration sought by George Bush authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Mitchell argued that "diplomatic pressure" and economic sanctions could compel Saddam Hussein to disgorge Kuwait. This and his voting record in the Senate show that Mitchell shares Christopher's deep faith in the powers of diplomacy and his weak appreciation for that which undergirds effective diplomacy, namely military power.


When he became majority leader in 1988, the New York Times described Mitchell as "a solidly liberal lawmaker" and said that "in choosing Mr. Mitchell, Democrats rejected the notion that they should use the majority leader's race as an opportunity to distance themselves from the Eastern liberal image that some believe cost their party the White House." An excited Ted Kennedy said Mitchell's victory constituted "a welcome signal that the liberal and progressive ideals of the Democratic Party have broad support among Senate Democrats from all parts of the country."


In National Journal's annual review of senatorial voting patterns, Mitchell was firmly in the liberal wing. Indeed, in five of his 14 years as a senator, he was included in the group with the most liberal record on key foreign- policy votes.


In short, Mitchell is no "New Democrat," but a believer in the old-time religion from the days when voters refused to give Democrats dominion over the nation's security. Compare his record with that of Sam Nunn, the quintessential New Democrat. Of the 61 foreign-policy votes Congressional Quarterly studied during Mitchell's 14-year tenure, he opposed Nunn about half the time -- an unusual difference of opinion for two senators from the same party.


The sharpest distinctions between them were on defense issues and Central America. Nunn often supported aid to the government of El Salvador and to the Nicaraguan contras in their battles against communism; Mitchell did not. Things changed with the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, Mitchell and Nunn worked hand in glove on two major issues: the Persian Gulf and Bosnia. The story of their collaboration does neither man credit.


From the moment U.S. forces were deployed in the Gulf, Bush administration spokesmen argued that, as commander in chief, the president could send soldiers into battle without a vote by Congress. Mitchell bitterly disputed this on the constitutional grounds that Congress had to authorize any such action. But when Bush sought such authorization, Mitchell fought tooth and nail to deny it.


Mitchell argued that "this is not a debate about American objectives" -- this was the "no one hates Saddam Hussein more than I do" part. No, he and the administration differed about "how best to achieve" their common goals. " Should we start with war?" he asked, after five months in which Bush sought to compel Iraq's departure from Kuwait without having to fire a shot.


Bush's steps toward war, Mitchell said, had "upset the balance between resources and responsibilities, between interests and risks." He was angry that the partners in the anti-Saddam coalition -- all of them countries far smaller and far weaker than the United States -- weren't carrying as much weight as we were. "If there is to be war in the Persian Gulf," he said, "it should not be a war in which Americans do the fighting and dying while those who benefit from our effort provide token help." America should not "assume a greater burden and a greater responsibility than other nations with an equal or even greater stake in the resolution of the crisis."


Mitchell's solution was the "Mitchell-Nunn resolution," which authorized only economic sanctions against Iraq for a period of 18 months. The two senators cobbled the resolution together as a supposedly responsible alternative to Bush's imprudence. After all, Mitchell said,


War carries with it great costs and high risk: an unknown number of casualties and deaths; billions of dollars spent; a greatly disrupted oil supply and oil price increases; a war possibly widened to Israel, Turkey, or other allies; the possible long-term American occupation of Iraq; increased instability in the Persian Gulf region; long-lasting Arab enmity against the United States; a possible return to isolationism at home.


But the costs and risks Mitchell assessed so direly were unlikely to change if America continued to do nothing but exert diplomatic pressure and levy sanctions on Saddam Hussein. And as for the balance of burdens between America and its allies, Mitchell's analysis was utterly backwards. Had the Mitchell-Nunn resolution passed, the balance in the coalition would have worsened because our allies would have hedged their bets by appeasing Saddam. If America had felt compelled to fight after the 18 months were over, it would have had to fight alone -- and this scenario assumes there would even have been a military option left after the repercussions the Mitchell- Nunn resolution would have touched off. The greater likelihood, had Mitchell and Nunn won, is that Kuwait today would be the 19th province of Iraq.


Once the war began, Mitchell hastened to close ranks with the administration in a show of national unity. But in his reply to Bush's 1991 State of the Union address, he could not resist a little partisan assault on the president he had previously accused of being "almost nostalgic about the Cold War."


Despite his formal support for the war effort, he offered a litany of moral equivalencies to it. "Students massacred in China, priests murdered in Central America, demonstrators gunned down in Lithuania -- these acts of violence are as wrong as Iraqi soldiers' killing civilians," he said. "The President says he seeks a new world order. We ask him to join us in putting our own house in order. . . . If we can make the best smart bomb, can't we make the best VCR?"


In 1994, there was yet another Mitchell and Nunn resolution -- yet another alternative to strong action in the midst of yet another military crisis. The issue was whether to lift the arms embargo that was keeping the government of Bosnia naked before its Serbian enemies. Sentiment in Congress was running strong for lifting the embargo and arming the Bosnians. But the administration, fearful of friction with European allies and Russia, turned to Mitchell and Nunn to act on its behalf. They offered a substitute that would merely have asked the president to try to persuade the allies to agree to lifting the embargo. Since leaving the Senate Mitchell has ceased to carry water for Bill Clinton on Bosnia. The private International Crisis Group, of which he is now chairman, forthrightly criticized the fatally flawed elections that were held in Bosnia this year at the administration's insistence.


One issue on which Mitchell rose ever so slightly above partisanship while still in the Senate was human rights in China. In 1990 he introduced legislation to deny China "most favored nation" status unless Beijing began respecting the rights of its citizens. At the time, the New York Times said Mitchell was "trying to define sharp differences between the Democratic Party and the [Bush] Administration on China policy." Indeed, Mitchell and others continued to press the issue until Bush was forced in 1992 to veto the MFN bill.


After assuming the presidency in 1993, Clinton soon announced he would extend China's mostfavored-nation status for one year -- but that future renewals would depend on China's human-rights progress. Mitchell backed him. A year later, Clinton reversed himself and announced the "delinking" of trade and human rights in U.S. policy toward China. Mitchell broke with him this time and again sponsored legislation linking MFN and human rights. However, with Democrats flocking to support their president, the measure was defeated in the House and Mitchell dropped it. It is unlikely that Secretary of State Mitchell could persuade Clinton to reverse himself again on China. But he would likely stand before China's totalitarian gerontocracy with a stiffer posture than Christopher's.


Still, the capital that might feel the greatest jolt in a transition from Christopher to Mitchell would not be Beijing but Damascus. Christopher made two dozen visits to Damascus in a futile and embarrassing effort to court Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. Mitchell is of Lebanese Maronite extraction on his mother's side, and there are a few hints in Mitchell's record of a sympathetic concern for the plight of Lebanon, whose sovereignty has been fatally compromised by Syria.


In 1983, he was one of only two Democrats to vote to authorize the Reagan administration's deployment of U.S. Marines in Lebanon -- the only key foreign-policy vote of his career on which he bucked an overwhelming majority of his Democratic colleagues. When President Bush met with Syria's Assad in Geneva during the Gulf crisis, Mitchell went out of his way to denounce the meeting as a "serious misjudgment by the president" on the grounds of " Syria's long record of complicity in terrorism" and its parlous human-rights record.


Bill Clinton's first two years in the White House were marked by an utter aversion to foreign policy. And his choice of the sphinx-like Christopher as secretary of state seemed intended somehow to keep these issues under wraps. In the second half of his first term, Clinton appeared to gain a growing appreciation for the importance of foreign policy. With no more election campaigns in his fixture, Clinton revealed recently that his thoughts were turning increasingly to achieving greatness in his presidency. Might he look to the international arena for the fulfillment of this last quest?


The selection of Mitchell suggests otherwise. All of the other candidates rumored to be under consideration for the position -- Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Sam Nunn, Strobe Talbott -- possess broader experience and deeper interest in foreign policy than Mitchell. His appointment would mean that Clinton is seeking another Christopher to mind the store while the man from Hope seeks his place in history in the groves of domestic policy.




Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.