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Crisis 1999
Opinions Archive 1999
Scold and Bomb: Clinton's Failed Foreign Policy

By Peter F. Krogh
(Mr. Krogh is dean emeritus and a distinguished professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.)

American foreign policy is in a shambles. The strike against Yugoslavia so poorly advised and executed -- may have the silver lining of illuminating that fact and summoning a course correction. We are seeking "regime change" in Serbia. When this is over, we may also need regime change at home.

Take a moment to survey the dismal scene:

The two most important -- and unsettled -- relationships this country has today are with Russia and China. If those could be got right, we would have relatively clear sailing. But both are deeply troubled. We have marginalized the Russians diplomatically, and called the shots on virtually every issue of importance to them. As for China, President Clinton has refused to accept his negotiator's success and welcome Beijing into the World Trade Organization. We are, in effect, standing in the way of their entry into the mainstream of the international system. We do so at our peril.

The two most critical crises in which we stand at center stage are in Iraq and Serbia. Both are destructive standoffs. We have been pounding Iraq for eight years. This has produced a deeply entrenched Saddam Hussein and a humanitarian disaster. We are now pounding Serbia. That is producing a deeply entrenched Slobodan Milosevic and another humanitarian disaster. In both cases the policy is the same: Do what we say or be bombed. And in both cases the result is the same - - a dictator's defiance, the physical destruction of his country and the immiseration of his people, the alienation of our allies, the depletion of our military assets and the erosion of our prestige and credibility.

Of course the unexpected is always possible. Mr. Milosevic could cave in after we have reduced his country to rubble. What will we then have gained except the responsibility to help rebuild it, and to keep expensive peacekeeping forces in place indefinitely? This sort of outcome is not the product of great minds at work.

Meanwhile, much else that is important to us in the world is either stalemated or deteriorating. The Middle East peace process is dead in the water. North Korea may have resumed its nuclear march and proceeds apace with the development (and export) of its ballistic-missile capability. India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and delivery systems, leaving our nonproliferation efforts in tatters. An opportunity for rapprochement with Iran is being frittered away. Africa's recently heralded renaissance is becoming a shortish affair -- a kind of renaissance weekend. Parts of Africa are in the grips of appalling human tragedy, the dimensions of which overwhelm Kosovo.

Closer to home, our neighbors to the south are attended to episodically and then usually in the negative context of drug wars and immigration control. The liberalization of global and hemispheric trade is stalled. Our relations with the United Nations are in utter disrepair.

This depressing survey would not, perhaps, be surprising were the U.S. short on power. But far from being short on power, we have more, relative to the rest of the world, than any nation has had in the entire history of the nation-state system. So the only explanation for our dismal record is that we are using our power unwisely and, in the process, wasting it.

We are using it unwisely by, among other things, trying to dictate to others. Recall how many edicts we have outstanding. They are issued by the current powers-that-be in the course of their peregrinations. Everywhere these officials go, they instruct. They instruct the Russians and the Japanese on their economics, the Chinese on their politics, the Iraqis on their military, the Serbs on their provinces, the Latin Americans on drugs, the U.N. on reform. And they do not do this discreetly. The operative and audible word is must. They "must" do as we wish. If they do not, sanctions or bombs are threatened and, far too often, applied. It is a foreign policy of sermons and sanctimony accompanied by the brandishing of Tomahawks.

I can recall no time in the past 30 years when American foreign policy was in worse shape. This is perhaps not surprising because I cannot recall a time when our foreign policy was in less competent hands. The effectiveness of the president is compromised by a host of factors, not least his subservience to polls.

Those who work for him in the National Security Council and the State Department are apparently not up to the roles history has assigned them. Sandy Berger, the president's national security adviser, seems more adept at the tactical handling of foreign policy on the home front than at grand strategy abroad. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for her part, appears to be trying to prove that she is tougher than the men with whom she is dealing. She does not need to do so; she could simply rise above them.

Today, the U.S. wants regime change in China, Iraq, Iran, Serbia and Cuba, to name just a few. We may wish to start closer to home. Perhaps our leaders will stop hyperventilating about the imperfections of others and attend to their diplomatic knitting. But if they don't do that soon, we should assemble a new foreign-policy team that embraces a view of America's role in the world as that of an integrator, not an instructor.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, April 28, 1999

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