The Lost Decade

Sunday, January 30, 2000
illustrationIllustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest  

Bill Clinton took his 1992 victory over foreign policy–focused President George Bush as a mandate to focus on his domestic agenda; problems elsewhere would simply be fended off by the lawyering skills of Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Thanks to the Reagan and Bush administrations that preceded him, Clinton had inherited the strongest military and political position of any world power since Great Britain at its Victorian-era peak and, when the power of technological, cultural, and commercial ideas was factored in, a paramount position unmatched in world history.

Relegating foreign policy to the backseat has been a mistake of enormous potential significance. The end of the Cold War meant the end of an international system that, however dangerous, had enabled governments everywhere to calculate their interests in the context of the free world versus the Soviet model. A new postwar international system of relations would have to be created. President Bush fully recognized this reality, as evidenced by his creative and successful management of U.S. policy on German unification and the worldwide coalition put together, with full United Nations Security Council backing, to free Kuwait (Operation Desert Storm) from Iraq’s takeover.

The biggest news about American foreign policy in the 1990s is that the American people, and much of the media, have scarcely paid any attention to it.


Today, the post–Cold War period is over, yet for the first time in modern history, no postwar system is being built. President Clinton’s failure to take up this critical challenge will be judged harshly by historians in the years to come.

But the charges against Clinton run beyond mere neglect. A series of Clinton foreign policy failures, each marked by deception and blame shifting, has damaged American credibility, contributed to worsening problems that later had to be dealt with under more adverse conditions, and undermined the rudimentary foundations that were available for a post–Cold War security structure.

In 1993, as Slobodan Milosevic’s henchmen proceeded with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Clinton began a policy that enabled him to appear tough by threatening the Serbs with air strikes. Yet the presence of our NATO allies, Britain and France, who had peacekeeping troops on the ground under the United Nations’ mandate, denied the Bosnian Croats and Muslims the means of defending themselves against Serbian retaliation. By repeatedly blaming the United Nations for failing to stop Serb depredations, Clinton so discredited U.N. peacekeeping—that organization’s most effective role—that it may rarely be employed again. When at last U.S. combat forces were sent to Bosnia in late 1995, they were assigned to replace U.N. peacekeepers who had been deployed in a combat zone, an insanely upside-down sequence of events.

In Somalia the 1993 military operation against a warlord’s headquarters in southern Mogadishu ended in disaster for the American forces. Although the operation was planned and conducted entirely by the United States, Clinton again blamed the United Nations for the disaster as he announced he would pull American forces out of Somalia. This was a de facto declaration that, with Clinton as commander in chief, the United States could not sustain casualties. It was formalized in a policy document called PDD-25, which imposed so many preconditions for the deployment of U.S. ground troops that it appeared to ensure that they would never be used again under combat conditions. It was this policy, assertively cited by Madeleine Albright, then American ambassador to the United Nations, that was used to avoid action that could have thwarted the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Thus the Genocide Convention, a legal treaty commitment to ensure that genocide would "never again" be permitted, went by the board, and hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda.

A few months later, in what had become a pattern of appearing decisive while ducking the hard case, the Clinton administration pulled down another pillar of security: the broad international coalition against Saddam Hussein built by the Bush administration at the time of Desert Storm. When Saddam sent his army to disrupt U.S.-backed rebels in northern Iraq, Clinton ordered cruise missiles fired against irrelevant targets hundreds of miles to the south, portraying it as a bold response just as the congressional election campaign of 1994 was taking off. By 1999 a series of similarly ineffective steps, each promoted to the media as a success, had lost the United States its coalition and allowed Saddam to proceed with his production of weapons of mass destruction, no longer troubled by international inspections.

After the Somalia debacle, the Clinton administration put so many preconditions on the deployment of U.S. ground troops that it appeared troops would never again be used in combat conditions.

Throughout the middle years of the decade, the Clinton administration engaged in a kind of three-step dance with dictators in Iraq, Bosnia, and North Korea. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, perfected the method: First, commit wrongful acts. Second, keep right on committing wrongful acts while American threats to intervene mount. Third, just at the moment when the U.S. military is about to inflict grave damage on you, announce a "concession," declare your readiness to negotiate, and demand a quid pro quo for your "positive step." In the meantime, consolidate your gains. While you tie up American diplomats in talks, lay plans to initiate another three-step dance later on. Although Karadzic carried out this maneuver repeatedly, Washington displayed no awareness that it was being duped. Saddam Hussein did the same. Kim Jong Il added his own variation with North Korea’s manufacture of nuclear arms, which became commodities that the Clinton administration would pay Pyongyang, in desperately needed food or fuel, not to produce or sell.

In this way Clinton’s foreign policy seemed to evolve as the product of three concepts, each well known to international relations specialists. As practiced by the Clinton team, each concept’s inherent flaw was magnified. First, "coercive diplomacy" required the United States to issue threats to cow transgressors into compliance. American credibility declined sharply as Secretary of State Albright engaged in "coercive diplomacy" almost every day in every direction. Second, "conflict resolution" called for insight and understanding of the adversary’s "needs." As a result, the United States has legitimized Slobodan Milosevic and his ilk by making them our negotiating partners, necessary for the implementation of cease-fires, inspections, and signed agreements. Third, the concept of "permissive environment" has evolved into a doctrine that does not allow the United States to put American troops in harm’s way. With this concept, of course, comes the corollary assumption that once Americans suffer casualties, our involvement will end, a virtual invitation to our enemies to plan to inflict those casualties.

U.S. policy toward Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 demonstrated all three concepts in practice. In both instances, the Clinton administration issued threats and conducted air strikes (coercive diplomacy) designed to pressure Serbian leaders to negotiate and sign an agreement so that U.S. forces could occupy large parts of their territory without opposition (a permissive environment). In return, the United States would allow the Serbian rulers to remain in office and would effectively affirm Serb sovereignty over the lands involved (conflict resolution).

The Clinton administration has characterized these two cases—particularly the seventy-eight-day air bombardment of Serbia leading to the military occupation of Kosovo by the United States and its main NATO allies—as victories that convincingly demonstrated the success of its foreign policy. Certainly few Americans were displeased by this demonstration of our nation’s ability to win a war (or military operation, depending on your definition) using only air power and without a single U.S. combat fatality.

But, seen in the broader context of past, present, and future, the picture is anything but reassuring. The disastrous events in Bosnia and Kosovo were made inevitable and unavoidable after years in which the Clinton administration refused to act in a timely and decisive way and chose instead to scapegoat others. The Balkans in the 1990s have seen a decade of "wars of Milosevic," substantially made possible by the United States, and those wars are by no means over.

The bombing campaign for Kosovo certainly qualifies as a decisive action. But this was a war that created its own cause. By carrying out air strikes against Serbia, aimed first at air defenses, then infrastructures, then selected military-industrial sites, the Clinton administration provided Milosevic with the time and political cover he needed to carry out massive expulsions and massacres of the Kosovar people, atrocities that the White House then cited as justification for Clinton’s decision to bomb.

On the diplomatic front, the agreements made by the United States at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 and in the aftermath of the Rambouillet conference in France in 1999 are so flawed as to be ultimately unworkable. In Bosnia we are committed to weld three hostile adversarial ethnicities, each possessing de facto sovereign powers, into a single multiethnic nation that now possesses only a de jure existence, an objective unlikely to be achieved within a generation. In Kosovo, it was becoming evident only days after our occupying forces went in that the only realistic hope of success would be for the United States to violate the agreement it had drafted, imposed by force, and signed—chiefly in our self-imposed commitment to keep Kosovo under Serbian sovereignty, a requirement that will put us directly at odds with the Kosovar people we intervened to protect.

Another undesirable dimension is that the United States has now dedicated itself to take responsibility for the future of Bosnia and Kosovo in ways that may tie our forces down to this geostrategically marginal area, a fact that must give satisfaction to regimes who do not wish us well in other parts of the world. Add to this the peacekeeping duties now assigned to our combat troops, which will do little to maintain their combat readiness.


Looking beyond the Balkans to the future, a new set of problems is discernible with each of the three centers of global power of major concern to the United States: Europe, Russia, and China/Japan.

The American air campaign against Serbia was a stunning demonstration to European NATO members of their military inadequacy. The extensive efforts of the alliance to portray the operation as a shared multilateral endeavor only exposed it more undeniably as U.S.-dominated. In effect, NATO was revealed to be more of a collection of nations with third-rate capabilities friendly to, but often politically hesitant about, the United States and its objectives. The campaign was hardly over before European leaders began to call for the development of a first-rank military force of their own, capable of operating independently, without even logistic support from the United States. Should this wish become reality, NATO’s Kosovo campaign will have succeeded in doing what the Soviet Union could not accomplish during the Cold War: to split the transatlantic alliance. More likely, the Europeans will not seriously attempt to achieve such a goal. America’s overwhelming military superiority has served as a kind of subsidy for the expensive social services provided by the welfare states of Europe, who will find it difficult to reduce their cherished programs to acquire independent military might.

Clinton’s success in expanding NATO in 1998 to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland was an appropriate recognition of the "freedom fighters" who resisted Cold War–era domination by the Soviet Union. The key question is what this means for U.S.-Russian relations.

In line with Clinton’s approach to domestic politics, his administration has been "triangulating" Russia. On the one hand, the administration has given steady support to Boris Yeltsin, close attention to Russia’s desire for treatment befitting its great power "dignity," and financial assistance bordering on bribery. On the other, the United States has pushed NATO to Russia’s borders but done little to counteract the impression that expansion was necessary to block a Russia congenitally prone to press outward in a drive for military aggrandizement. The U.S. failure to give Russia a real stake in the post–Cold War European security order inevitably calls forth memories of the refusal of the Allied powers at Versailles in 1919 to give Germany a stake in the West’s vision for postwar Europe, a mistake that contributed to Germany’s remilitarization and another world war just twenty years later.

Russia is beginning to define itself through impeding or undermining American objectives.

The Kosovo case has highlighted the new tensions involved. The United States expanded NATO up to the line made famous by Samuel Huntington in his "clash of civilizations" theory, where the nations of "Western Christendom" meet those of Orthodox Christianity. The United States then waged a victorious air war against an Orthodox nation, Serbia, and occupied territory Serbia regarded as its historic and cultural homeland. The Clinton administration then had to turn its diplomacy over to Russia, Serbia’s traditional patron, to reach the required conflict-ending agreement with Serbia’s leader. The administration did not intend to give Russia any, or more than a nominal, role in the occupation of Kosovo, a hope that vanished with the surprise dash of Russian troops to the airport of Kosovo’s capital, a bold stroke that gave Moscow the leverage to extract American agreement to the deployment of Russian forces into most sectors of the province. As even a minimal Russian presence will deter the return of many Kosovar refugees, Moscow appears to have served Serbia’s interests, at minimal cost, while keeping the United States tied down in the Balkans for the foreseeable future.

Thus the culminating years of the Clinton administration have been marked by signs that Russia, in reaction to U.S. moves, is beginning to define itself through impeding or undermining American objectives and by serving once more as an address where others can apply, as President Hafez al-Assad of Syria recently did, for support in opposing American objectives.

The other big power dramatically affected by the U.S. intervention in Kosovo, of course, is China. Coming as it did in the context of the tenth anniversary of the Tianan-men Square massacre, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade must have been seen by Beijing as a heaven-sent opportunity to further its continuing campaign to keep the Chinese people in a xenophobic mood generally, with specific feelings of outrage about the alleged "insults" inflicted on China by the United States.

Clinton’s handling of the China relationship has bolstered the growing assumption that East Asia has become the world’s most dangerous region. Oddly enough for big-power politics, it is not acts or ideas or statements that raise the risks involved but an attitude that the United States has allowed to take root in the Chinese hierarchy: that no matter what moves China may take against our interests, Washington will find a way to sidestep it, play it down, or explain it away. When China fired missiles to bracket and, in effect, blockade Taiwan in March 1996, Clinton took credit for "the bold response" of sending carriers to the area. Not lost on the Chinese, however, was the fact that they closed the Taiwan Strait (a high seas waterway) during the operation without being challenged by the U.S. Navy. And the revelation in 1999 that China had penetrated the most secret U.S. weapons laboratories and stolen intelligence on every warhead in the U.S. arsenal was predictably downplayed by the Clinton administration.

China’s internal situation similarly is affected by an American attitude that adds up to avoidance. Throughout the 1990s, American policy has been shaped by the conviction that China’s economic development will be the locomotive that inevitably pulls human rights and democracy into the Chinese polity. The problem with this theory is twofold. First, it justifies American inaction on the ground that current setbacks to freedom are insignificant. Second, it encourages the determination, which has marked Chinese leaders for a century or more, to gain wealth and power from the technology and economic dynamism of the West without relinquishing their traditional forms of political control over the Chinese people. As the Asian economic crisis of 1997–1998 should have demonstrated, economic advances under conditions that lack the transparency and accountability of democracy cannot be sustained.

The Clinton administration’s handling of the U.S.-China relationship has allowed dangerous tendencies to gather strength. Unless changes are made in U.S. policy, sometime in the next decade an American president will witness either an internal upheaval in China, demonstrating that the Chinese revolution that began a century and a half ago is not yet over, or an attempt by Beijing to take Taiwan. Very likely the former will lead to the latter.

The situation in China, whatever it may be, has tremendous implications for the Japanese, who are watching closely to see whether the United States has the will and the wit to engage China constructively. With the Clinton record suggesting that we do not, Japan must contemplate the desirability of continuing to rely on the United States for its fundamental security in the new century.


At the outset of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a set of positive assumptions emerged:

  • That Russia, in return for treatment befitting self-definition as a great power, would become a productive and cooperative friend of the United States and move slowly but surely toward democracy and the free market

  • That the success of Desert Storm heralded a new era of security cooperation between the United States and the states of the gulf and the Arabian peninsula

  • That the end of Soviet support for terrorism offered an opportunity to achieve a solid Arab-Israeli peace

  • That just as arms reduction agreements between the Cold War superpowers had proved achievable, it would be possible to strengthen the control and nonproliferation of nuclear and conventional arms among all nations

  • That the economic dynamism of Northeast, East, and Southeast Asia was a permanent feature of the world economy that could be emulated in Africa and elsewhere in what was once called the third world—and that progress toward human rights and democracy would automatically be strengthened by this process

  • That international law and such institutions as the Security Council of the United Nations, largely shunted aside by the Cold War confrontation, would be revitalized and reformed and, through U.S. leadership, could serve as key elements in the construction of a post–Cold War structure of international stability, security, and cooperation

Somehow, the "new world order" envisioned by President Bush never materialized. The fact that none of these assumptions has been borne out is a measure of the failure of President Clinton’s stewardship of American foreign policy. An understanding of the Clinton administration’s mismanagement of the American national interest can itself serve as a guideline for the construction of a new and effective policy. The first step must be the willingness of the presidential nominees of both of America’s national political parties to develop, explain, and build support for a fresh start toward reaffirming American world leadership.