Red My Flips: Clinton's Foreign Policy Reversals in His Own Words

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Red My Flips: Clinton's Foreign Policy Reversals in His Own Words

June 20, 1994 14 min read Download Report
Larry DaRita

(Archived document, may contain errors)

June 20, 1994


By Lawrence T. DiRita Deputy Director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies

Today's leadership is rudderless, reactive and erratic. It is time for lead- ership that is strategic, vigorous and grounded in America's democratic values.1

Bill Clinton on the Pmsidency of George Bush BwClinton's criticisms of George Bush's foreign policy sound very familiar. They are the same charges being made against Bill Clinton today. But unlike President Bush, who was highly re- spected for his foreign policy credentials, President Clinton is finding that the charges are sticking. An article in The Economist, Europe's leading English-language newsweekly, offers a remn why. Discussing rumors of a shake-up in the Administration's foreign-policy team, the article observes that

... [t]he central problem is Mr. Clinton himself. He keeps changing course, and has had a tendency to reveal bits of his foreign-policy think- ing in reaction to reporters' questions.2

In fact, the reigning perception of Clinton Administration foreip policy is one of reversal: "flip- flops" on nearly every policy issue about which he sought to draw a distinction during the 1992 presidential campaign between his views and the policies of the Bush Administration. The irony of these policy reversals is that it was Clinton, and not Bush, who sought to highlight the issues in question during the campaign, to exploit what he saw as chinks in the Bush Administra- tion's otherwise well-regarded foreign policy armor. For example, as early as December 199 1, when President Bush was stiff riding high in the polls following Operation Desert Storm, Clinton sought to tie the victory over Iraq directly to Bush's policy of engagement with China when he told students at Georgetown University that yflold O&M

I Governor Bill Clinton, Remarks to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, August 13, IM, p. 9. 2 "Beached," 7he Econondst, June 11, 1994, p. 21.

[Bush's] close personal ties with foreign leaders clearly helped him to forge that coalition against Saddarn Hussein, but it also let him side with China's Communist rulers after a democratic uprising of students.3

But in the Clinton Administration's most recent and widely publicized reversal, the President has adopted a policy regarding trade with China that is indistinguishable from his predecessor's. This pattern has been repeated in enough areas to suggest that it reflects more than a new Presi- dent searching for a vision for foreign affairs. Rather, these reversals suggest an Administration that has found that, in-many.cases,@ vision.for America was simply wrong. For example, the Admini- stration's belief that the United Nations could exercise strong global leadership to "build democ- racy" in Somalia proved to be dead wrong. Clinton is now so gun-shy about such interventions that he is reluctant even to provide non-lethal assistance to a legitimate U.N. humanitarian mission in Rwanda. The Clinton Administration's view of human rights turned out to be mistaken as well. Clinton's foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, thought that it could humble the Chinese with public lectures and press conferences. The Chinese were not impressed. Realizing that its view of China was not coinciding very well with reality, the Clinton Administration simply re- versed itself and extended to China near-unconditional and permanent most-favored-nation trading status. The troubling consequence of this mistaken world view has been the needless squandering of America's prestige and credibility abroad. Firm pronouncements on the intention to use American force in Bosnia have been ignored so many times that the President is considering using American force in Haiti to demonstrate his resolve in other places, like Korea. Clinton's misguided foreip policy vision has resulted in wrong-headed definitions of American national interests. His most serious mistake has been to view foreip policy as a mere extension of domestic (read: economic) policy and politics. The President has said repeatedly that "our first for- eign priority [is] reviving our economy,',4 But this is not true. The first foreign policy priority should be to promote and defend American security, interests, and values abroad. This is the basic duty of a commander in chief. Foreign policy cannot be made by reacting to public opinion polls. Nor can putting economic revival at the center of U.S. foreip policy strategy give the U.S. any guidance whatsoever in dealing with the current crises of Korea, Bosnia, Haiti, or even Rwanda. Somebody should tell Clinton's foreign policy team: "It's security, Stupid." What follows is a series of statements that provide vivid proof of the Clinton Administration's lack of consistency in overseas affairs. This confusion stems not from a lack of vision, but from a clash of principles with reality. While these statements do not address every aspect of American for- eip policy, they pertain to those issues that have dominated the Administration's nearly eighteen months in office. They reveal a disturbing lack of focus and resolve- which has not gone unnoticed in North Korea and elsewhere.

3 "A New Covenant For American Security," Remarks by Gov. Bill Clinton, Georgetown University. December 12,1991. 4 Remarks to Los Angeles World Affairs Council, op. cit., p. 2. HAVING IT BOTH WAYS: CLINTON'S POLICY FLIP-FLOPS


Flip: "I think that..-.sending [refugees] back to Haiti ... was an error, and so I will modify that process. I'm not in a position to tell you exactly how....but I can tell you I'm going to change the policy"

November 12,1992, News Conference

Flop: "Ibe practice of returning those who flee Haiti by boat will continue ... d- ter I become president. Those who leave Haiti by boat for the United States will be intercepted and returned to Haiti by the U.S. Coast Guard.,,

January 14, 1993, Radio Broadcast Flip: "I have no intention of asking our young people in uniform ... to go in there to do anything other than implement a peace agreement ......

October 13,1993, White House Remarks Flop: "...I think that we cannot afford to discount the prospe& of a military op- tion [in Haiti]."

May 3,1994, News Conference President Clinton was forced to reverse his early Haiti policy even before he assumed office, as Haitians prepared for a mass exodus of their island nation after his inauguration. Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave perhaps the least charitable, if most candid, assessment of the earlier pol- icy when he said during a televised interview that "I don't suppose you'd want anybody to keep a campaign promise if it was a very unsound policy."5 Clinton himself the next day remarked: "You know, maybe I was too harsh in my criticism of [Bush], but I still think there's a big difference be- tween what we're doing in Haiti and what they were doing in Haiti."6 - Since this early policy reversal, the Administration's Haiti policy has developed to the point that the use of American military force to oust the military regime "has received serious consideration by senior administration officials."7 This, too, marks a significant reversal after the embarrassing spectacle in October 1993, when a U.S. warship with 600 American and Canadian peacekeepers sent to enforce a United Nations resolution was denied a berth at a Haitian pier by an unruly mob. At the time of the incident, Clinton reassured Americans that he had no intention of using military force in Haiti. But after pressure from liberals in Congress and elsewhere to tighten the stranglehold on the Haitian military junta, Administration officials am increasingly discussing the military op- tion.

5 "High court to hear challenge to refugee policy," The Warhington Times, March 1, 1993, p. A3. 6 "Exchange With Reporters Prior to a Meeting With Secretary Giencral Manfred Woerna of the North AdanticTrealy organization," Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, March 2, 1993. 7 "Escalating U.S. Pressure on Haiti Is aTwo-Edged Sword," M Washington Post, June 12,1994, p. A9.

BOSNIA Flip: "We will make the U.S. the catalyst for a collective stand against aggres- sion, the action I have urged in response to Serbian aggression in Bosnia ......

August 13, 1992, Speech to L.A. World Affairs Council

Flop: "The United Nations controls what happens in Bosnia."

June 15, 1993, News Conference Flip: "I think we should act. We should lead. The United States should lead."

April 23, 1993, News Conference Flop: 1 cannot unilaterally lift the arms embargo [on Bosnia] .... Our allies de- cided that they weren't prepared to go that far this time."

June 15, 1993, News Conference Flip: "Ibis idea of ethnic cleansing is an idea that needs to be nipped in the bud."

January 19,1993,7V Interview Flop: "Our ability to stop people within national boundaries from killing each other is somewhat limited and will be for the foreseeable future."

November 7. 1993, TV Interview More than any other foreign issue, the President's Bosnia policy reflects his "tendency to reveal bits of his ... thinking in reaction to...questions."8 In this case, though, the Administration's vacilla- tions have done damage to American credibility and overseas perceptions of U.S. resolve. In particu- lar, the Bosnia policy has strained relations with America's most important NATO allies. Since the 1992 presidential campaip, the President's elevated rhetoric about his willingness to use force has not been matched by the leadership needed to got reluctant allies to participate. Clinton himself rec- ognized this when he acknowledged that "if we had put the Atlantic alliance on the table, I think it's quite conceivable we would have prevailed. 999 The President's inability to define the limits of American interests in the Balkans and to craft a co- herent policy in response has created a leadership vacuum that has resulted in Congress asserting it- self in foreign policy matters assigned to the Chief Executive by the Framers of the Constitution. Both houses, for example, have passed resolutions telling the President to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. The Administration's flip-flops on Bosnia have become part of the public debate concerning U.S. policy in the region. In a May 1993 news conference, Clinton defended his positions in response to a question by decMng that "[wle're not vacillating. We have a clear, strong policy:'10 One year later, little had changed. At a CNN "Global Forune' televised worldwide, in response to a question from a reporter in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, Clinton insisted: Mere have been no constant flip- flops .... pill

8 "Beached," The Economist, June 11, 1994, p. 21. 9 "Foreign policy mars Clinton's first year," 7he Washington Thnes, November 9. 1993. p. Al. 10 "U.S. had, but lost, the chance to lead," 7he Washington 71mes, May 19,1993, p. Al. I I Transcript of "A Global Forum With President Clinton," Cable News Network, May 3, 1994.



Flip: '01be [Bush] administration continues to coddle China, despite its continu- ing crackdown on democratic reform ......

December 12, 199 1. Speech at Georgetown University Flop: I think anybody should be reluctant to isolate a country as big as China, with the potential it has for good."

November 19,1993','Remarks at APEC Conference Flip: "We will link China's trading privileges to its human rights record and its conduct on trade and weapons sales."

August 13, 1992, Speech to the LA. World Affairs Council Flop: I am moving, therefore, to delink human rights from the annual extension of most-favored nation trading status for China ......

May 26, 1994, News Conference During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton singled out George Bush's China policy for espe- cially harsh criticism. In a December 1991 foreign policy speech to students at his alma mater, Geor- getown University, he chided Bush for "coddl[ing) China, despite its continuing crackdown on democratic reform." 12 By the time he was his party's nominee, he had sharpened his attack, charg- ing Bush with failing "to stand up for [American] values ... signalling that we would do business as usual with those who murdered freedom in Tiananmen Square."' 13 At the heart of Clinton's opposition to his predecessor was Bush's decision to extend most-fa- vored-nation trading status to China despite Beijing's harsh human rights record. Clinton opposed the policy and chose to link the two. Notwithstanding the political expedience of doing so, though, he went beyond just urging a link. In a pattern that has by now become familiar, he tried to have it both ways. In a May 1993 Executive Order, he extended MIFN benefits for one year but established five demanding human rights criteria for China to satisfy if MFN extension was to be renewed in 1994. In the end, he simply chose to de-link trade and human rights and to try to engage rather than isolate the largest country in the world. In the China MFN debacle, the President's flip-flops were mirrored by the comments of his advi- sors, whose own disagreements were symptomatic of the President's schizophrenia on the issue of trade with China. In January, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, concerned about the impact on capital markets of a trade war with China, declared a January 1994 trip to Beijing a success. He noted that "...we achieved a g2d balance between pursuing economic interests and putting them in an overall political context." But less than two months later, Secretary of State Warren Christo- pher was publicly rebuffed by Chinese officials in Beijing when he demanded sips of progress on human rights. In contmst to Bentsen's praise for the "pattern of cooperation" he had established, Christopher declared that he had "pulled no punches and yielded no ground."

12 "A New Covcmmt For American Security," op. cit. , p. 7. 13 Renwks by Governor Bill Clinton, Los Angeles World Affairs Council, August 13,1992, p. 4. 14 "Bentsen prods China to reform rights, economy." 7he Washington 77mes, January 23,1994. p. Al. The President's own reaction to Christopher's hard line presaged his ultimate flip-flop on this is- sue. In an outburst to aides reported by The New York Times, Clinton wondered: "What the hell is Chris doing there now?" 15 Two months later, Clinton reversed his policy and renewed China's MFN trading rights. As in Haiti, he had thus adopted the Bush Administration's policy, but not be- fore first having damaged American credibility throughout Asia.


Flip: "The ultimate goal is to make sure that the United Nations can fulfill its mis- sion there and continue to work with the Somalis toward nation building."

June 16, 1993, Remarks to Reporters Flop: 'Me U.S. military mission is not now nor was it ever one of 'nation build- 99 ing'.

October 13, 1993, Report to Congress Flip: 'The purpose of the operation was to undermine the capacity of Aideed to wreak military havoc in Mogadishu."

June 17, 1993, Remarks to Reporters Flop: "... [W]e never ever ... listed getting rid of Aideed as one of our objectives."

June 17, 1993, Remarks to Reporters The Clinton Administration's decision to expand the mission in Somalia from feeding the hungry to building a nation was a gradual one, and was short-lived. But the inclinations of Clinton and his senior advisors to defer to the U.N. should have come as no surprise. In his August 1992 speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, candidate Clinton linked U.S. military force reductions to his intended support for "a new, voluntary U.N. Rapid Deployment Force." Clinton told his audi- ence that "[i]n ... Somalia... and other torn areas of the world, multilateral action holds promise as never before, and the U.N. deserves full and appropriate contributions .... 46 Clinton's blind spot for U.N. military operations persisted until as late as September 1993, less than two weeks before the military debacle in Mogadishu in which 18 U.S. Rangers were killed. He told the U.N. General Assembly on September 27 that "filn Somalia, the United States and the United Nations have worked together to achieve a stunning humanitarian rescue,...restoring the con- ditions of security for almost the entire country. 9,17 There was a rare consistency of message from senior Clinton advisors regarding the Administra- tion's U.N. policy prior to the embarrassment in Somalia. Less dian a week before Clinton's U.N. speech, National Security Advisor Tony Lake endorsed multilateralism as an important element of Clinton Administration policy in moving from a Cold War policy of containment to one of "en- largement of the world's free community of market democracies." He told an audience at Johns Hopkins University that the policy had "restored order throughout most of Somalia," linking the multilateral operation there to "NATO, the RvIF, or the GATT."18

15 "Clinton and China: How Promise Self-Destructed," 7he New York Times, May 29,1994, p. 1. 16 Remarks to L.A. World Affairs Council, op. cit., p. 7. 17 Pricsident Clinton, Remarks to dw 48th Session of die United Nations General Assembly, September 27,1993, p. 7. 18 "From Containment to Enlargement." Remarks of Anthony Lake. Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., September 21, 1993, p. 9. In even more pointed remarks, Clinton's Ambassador to the U.N. had explicitly acknowledged the expansion of objectives in Somalia from Bush's "limited ... humanitarian relief' to "lift[ingi the country and its people from the category of a failed state into that of an emerging democracy. 92 9 Unfortunately, it took the deaths in October 1993 of nearly two dozen young Americans in a failed military operation in Somalia for the Clinton Administration to learn the folly of what Albright had termed "assertive multilateralism" in regions where there are no apparent U.S. national interests.


Flip: "...[W]e still must set the level of defense spending based on what we need to protect our interests around the globe .... Then we can talk about defense sav- 99 ings.

December 12,1991, Speech at Georgetown University Flop: "As a share of [Gross Domestic Product, Defense] spending will fall from 3.7 percent in 1995 to 2.8 percent in 1999. This compares to an average ... of 8.5 percent ... during the mid 1950's to mid 1960's."

Budget of the United States GovernmenL Fiscal Year 1995

Flip: "...[A] Clinton-Gore administration will not permit American firms again to sell key technologies to outlaw states like Iraq."

August 13, 1992, Speech to the L.A. World Affairs Council

Flop: "... [W]e will work with our partners to remove outdated [technology ex- port] controls that unfairly burden ... commerce and unduly restrain growth and opportunity all over the world."

September 27, 1993, Speech to the U.N. General As- sembly Clinton's defense policy has bordered on disingenuous. During the 1992 campaip, his stump speech included the line that "the Clinton-Gore defense budget brings savings of about $60 billion over the Bush plan, through 1997."20 But as his own budget shows, his actual defense reductions have been more than double that. By 1999, defense spending as a percentage of the total goods and services produced in the U.S. economy will be lower than it was on the eve of World War H. De- spite these drastic reductions, the Administration acknowledges a funding shortfall of at least $20 billion for the defense forces outlined in its own "Bottom-Up Review" of America's security re- quirements through 1999. A key item on the Clinton security agenda has been to check the spread of high-technology weap- ons around the world. In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September 1993, the President declared "nonproliferation" of weapons and technology "one of our most urgent priori- 9921 ties. The current crisis on the Korean peninsula regarding the probable diversion of plutonium by North Korea to build nuclear weapons has from the beginning been portrayed by the Administration

19 Madeleine X. Albright, "Yes, 7bere h a Reason to Be in Somalia," 7he New York Times, August 10, 1993, p. 19. 20 Remarks to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, op. cit, p. 6. 21 Remarks to the 48th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, op. cit, p. 6. as a challenge to that priority. In a speech before the South Korean National Assembly in June 1993, for example, Clinton noted that "[w]e cannot let the expanding threat of these deadly weap- ons replace the cold war .... Today that possibility is too real .... [Slo long as North Korea abides by... . ,22 international nonproliferation commitments, it has nothing to fear from America. But in the words of two former Reagan/Bush national security officials, Clinton has "made a bit- ter mockery" of his own counterproliferation policy. "Every bit of the lethal technology that Sad- darn Hussein obtained illegally can now be legally purchased by all but a tiny handful of pariah countries, and those bad guys can easily pick them up from third parties."23 In a bid to satisfy the demands of high-tech industries-many of which are located in voter-rich California-the Admini- stration has been lifting U.S. restrictions on the sale of sensitive technology around the world, and encouraging its allies to do the same. In March 1994, for example, the so-called Coordinating Com- mittee (COCOM) of Western allies that was established during the Cold War to halt the spread of high-technology and munitions to rope states like the Soviet Union was disbanded at the insistence of the Clinton Administration. Negotiations for a successor organization are unlikely to be con- cluded before the discipline of international export controls imposed by the COCOM begins to break down. One example weaves together the strands of the Administration's reversals on both its China and counterproliferation policies and best illustrates the complete absence of principled consistency: In November 1993, the Clinton Administration approved the sale of a sophisticated Cray supercom- puter to China. Beijing wanted to purchase the computer-capable of over one billion operations per second-for "weather prediction"; similar models are used in the United States for strategic tar- geting and communications encryption. The sale had been denied by the Bush Administration, pri- marily because of the strong objections by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One Clinton Administration official justified the sale with a defense unlikely to have been allowed for Bush's sales of high-tech- nology to Iraq: "[The Chinese] could get [the computer) elsewhere if they didn't get it from the United States. 9924

Brad Hodge and Tucker Bailey contributed to this paper.

22 "Clinton in Kam: A Call fbr a Pacific Community Based on 'Shared Strength'," 77se New York Times, July 11, 1993. p. S. 23 Michael Ledeen and Stephen Bryen, "Decontrol Freaks," 7he American Spectator. June 1994. P. 20. 24 "Clinton, seeking to fan trade fires, caters Asia talks." 7he Washington 7"unes, November 19,1993, p. A8.


Larry DaRita