The Magazine

The Clinton Legacy Abroad

His sins of omission in foreign and defense policy leave us unprepared for the dangers of the next decade

Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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To watch Bill Clinton flit around the world these past few months, desperately and in some cases dangerously seeking some final "accomplishment" to add to his legacy, has been to see with stunning clarity a fundamental truth about this president's foreign policy: It has been mostly about him.

Over the past year especially, Clinton has been preoccupied with his lasting fame. There was the signing, on the last day of 2000, of the agreement establishing an International Criminal Court, a vain and cynical gesture given the serious flaws of the agreement, which even Clinton acknowledges, and the certainty that the treaty will never be ratified. There was the meaningless trip to Ireland this fall, a visit the president's aides admitted had no substantive value but which provided a lovely and, for Clinton, much-needed spectacle of cheering throngs celebrating the great almost-peacemaker. There was the meaningless visit to Vietnam, with still more cheering crowds, and old Communist bosses offering their thanks for Clinton's long-ago opposition to his own country's effort to protect millions of innocent South Vietnamese from a Communist takeover. And then there was Clinton's evident eagerness to visit an even more brutal Communist thug in North Korea, a visit he called off at the last minute. What stopped him cannot have been the lack of progress toward a meaningful agreement on Pyongyang's ballistic missile program, since Clinton's other lame-duck voyages were entirely futile. Perhaps Clinton reviewed the tapes of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to North Korea in October and decided he did not want the last, lingering image of him to be anything like the shots of her smiling idiotically while starving, terrified children ate their first hearty meal in weeks.

Instead, last week's meeting with Yasser Arafat will probably offer the final image of President Bill Clinton as world leader: the tireless statesman striving for Middle East peace right up until the last second of his presidency, as the dutiful Washington press corps portrayed him. Yet even senior administration officials admit their boss is now just putting on a show for the home audience, since, as one top adviser put it, "talking about a peace deal is increasingly artificial" amidst the escalating Palestinian violence condoned and perhaps even instigated by Arafat himself.

But in this case, unlike that of Ireland, Clinton's last-minute grandstanding has caused real damage. His stubborn search for a final Middle East settlement in the last year of his presidency, his refusal to heed the signs that such an agreement was impossible, his deliberate raising of hopes that inevitably turned to anger when they were disappointed -- all this will be recorded as one of the great foreign policy blunders of recent times. In the blind pursuit of an unattainable peace, Clinton managed to harm American interests, endanger the security of an ally, and bring unnecessary suffering to Israelis and Palestinians alike. And for what? Even as the American-brokered negotiations crumbled and violence erupted earlier this year, Clinton had his people lobbying the Nobel committee for his peace prize. In the end, it was all about Bill Clinton.

Of course, it wasn't always just about fame. In years past it was also about money, money to keep Clinton, and now his wife, in office. Maybe it was inevitable after the Cold War that American business interests would once again trump national security and moral interests, but the Clinton political machine was exceptionally quick and adept in figuring out how foreign policy could be turned into a cash cow. Clinton's first commerce secretary, Ron Brown, died tragically in a plane crash. But "Ron Brown diplomacy," the placing of the American foreign policy apparatus at the service of big business and big donors, survived and flourished. And nowhere was the operation more profitable than in China, where the Clinton administration set up a three-way back-scratching arrangement unparalleled in American history. The Chinese wanted access to American high technology so they could modernize their military. American satellite makers, aircraft builders, cell-phone manufacturers, computer makers -- not to mention insurance and financial services providers -- wanted in on the rich Chinese market. The Clinton machine wanted huge amounts of cash for its campaign war chest. Let's make a deal!