The Magazine

The Example of Our Power

Bill Clinton's verbal chicanery.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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If you've recently taken a gander at the liberal foreign policy tomes, attended any think tank panels on America's supposed decline, or read the prolific output of today's fashionable foreign affairs thinkers, you've probably heard a lot about the virtues of "soft power." According to its main proponent, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, soft power is "the ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them." The standard liberal critique of the last eight years of American foreign policy presumes that the Bush administration neglected soft power and emphasized military force, "hard power," to an extent unprecedented in the annals of American history. This narrative has become a defining aspect of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

When not criticizing the Republican nominee for his support for the Iraq war, Obama and his surrogates have gone after him for "saber-rattling" on crises ranging from the Russian invasion of Georgia to the Iranian nuclear program. This sentiment was reiterated last month by the only Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve more than one term: Bill Clinton. This was surprising, given that he actually ran to the right of his Republican rivals on foreign policy.

Clinton gave one of the better speeches of the lackluster Democratic convention, and he offered one of the convention's most memorable lines--memorable because it so perfectly encapsulates the worldview of many in the Democratic party today. Following his admonition that, "Most important of all, Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are first strong at home," Clinton told the assembled Democrats, "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."

This sort of thing--harking back to a lost era when people the world over respected America because we weren't so mean/imperialist/greedy--is red meat for Democrats. It presumes that, rather than America's unique position in the world being the prime instigator of anger, it's instead a discrete set of policies enacted by George W. Bush which have sucked "the power" from "our example." And from this follows the usual litany of alleged administration misdeeds: the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the invasion of Iraq--without sufficiently "consulting of our allies"--Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, etc.

Disagreement on these issues stems from differences over policy (or at least ought to, but many Democrats believe the foreign policy of the last eight years to be immoral). But is it really true that "people the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power"? There certainly have been times in American history when our exemplary actions reverberated more strongly abroad than concomitant displays of economic and military might. But it hasn't always been the case. It wasn't even the case during the Clinton administration.

Despite Democrats' rosy-hued memories, the Clinton years were hardly ones of glorious, multilateral, liberal internationalism. They were in many ways indistinguishable from the Bush years. Take Kyoto. In 1997 the Senate passed a resolution 95-0 stipulating that the United States would not become signatory to a treaty that "would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States." Clinton then never submitted it for ratification. Or take torture. The policy of extraordinary rendition--transferring terrorism suspects to countries where they face harsh interrogation and, yes, torture--was inaugurated during the second Clinton administration.

As for military intervention abroad, Clinton was one of the most interventionist presidents in American history, sending troops off to fight in more missions than any other president. From Haiti to Somalia, the Clinton administration backed up to Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation."