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."
In Bosnia and again in Kosovo, Clinton was a firm believer in the "example of our power," having realized that America withholding its military help was "killing the U.S. position of strength in the world," as he said in 1995. He supported arming the Bosnian Muslims and deployed 20,000 American soldiers to hold the peace. In Africa, Clinton sent troops to take part in the U.N.'s mission in Somalia; withdrawing only after 18 U.S. soldiers were murdered in the streets of Mogadishu (what did that hasty retreat in the face of aggression do for the "power of our example"?). Clinton and various members of his administration have apologized repeatedly for not making better use of the "example of our power" (in so many words) in Rwanda, where nearly a million people were slaughtered on his watch.
And Clinton certainly believed in the "example of our power" when it came to his relationship with Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, a foreign policy threat that frustrated him throughout his eight years in office. Fed up with the Iraqi dictator's cynical manipulation of U.N. weapons inspectors, Clinton bombed Iraq in December 1998. Whatever his criticisms of American power today, he was at times overly reliant on it, for instance, when he bombed a children's pharmaceutical factory in Sudan during the height of the Lewinsky scandal.
U.S. presidents have long deployed power to forward our ideals and protect our interests, and the Clinton administration fits rather neatly into the continuity of American foreign policy.
It is so far unclear whether Barack Obama even agrees with Clinton's lyrically composed sentiment, so incoherent has the Democratic nominee been on foreign policy. In the speech last year that earned him the fear of the Pakistani "street," Obama (wisely, in my opinion) said that under his administration the United States would attack terrorist targets in Pakistani territory if it had "actionable intelligence." His plans to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps would flaunt the "example of our power" to China. His standing in opposition to free trade agreements with strategically important allies like South Korea and Colombia contradicts a campaign narrative based upon recovering America's wounded reputation. And Obama has offered no realistic solution to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The "power of our example," whatever that means, hasn't done much at all for the wretched masses of western Sudan.
None of this is to say, of course, that the United States cannot behave better either at home or abroad; we're far from perfect. But we're closer than most. The alleged lack of "people the world over" who are "impressed" with the United States is the result of factors far more complicated than whether we signed this or that treaty, joined the convention banning landmines, pressed for yet another toothless U.N. resolution on any given issue, or hold terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay or Fort Leavenworth. Much of the world will resent us no matter what we do, at least when venting to pollsters from the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
Whatever damage Democrats believe has been done to America's reputation over the past eight years, it's had nary an effect on the number of people trying to come to the United States. "People the world over," if their collective opinion on any issue can be summarized, seem to be more "impressed" by American engagement with the world and our global leadership than by vague, Clintonian pronouncements of our virtue. Just ask the Bosnian Muslims, the Kosovars, the Georgians, and any other people who have benefited from the exercise of our power, or the Darfurians and others who have been victims of our inaction. Or ask the Kurds, who have experienced both.
In Iraq, we've recently seen the significance of the power of examples-- even if most Democrats are unwilling to recognize it. There, the masochistic violence of our enemies was atrocious enough to drive the local population to work with coalition forces--whose admirable service has won them the appreciation of so many Iraqis--and to fight back against the insurgency.
Clinton's pabulum, however, and its embrace by the Democratic base, betrays a misunderstanding of how terrorists, rogue states, and petty tyrants operate. The "power of our example" means nothing to them; they do not require imperfect American actions to justify authoritarianism, attacks on innocent civilians, or the flouting of all recognized norms of behavior. They will behave in such a fashion whether a Clinton or a Bush is in office. And more often than not it's only the "example of our power" that will stop them.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor at the New Republic.