Clinton’s Flawed Foreign Policy

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 1999

It is too early to tell if the NATO air strikes against Serbia now underway will have the desired effect of forcing Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic to call off his war against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Will NATO employ pinprick strikes to send a "signal" to Milosovic, or will it carry out a sustained campaign to eliminate Serbia’s war making potential? Success demands the latter.

Unfortunately up to now, the Clinton administration has preferred the former-the theatrical use of force that has little effect other than to encourage further aggression on the part of a Milosovic or a Saddam Hussein.

The current crisis in Kosovo cannot be understood in a vacuum. It must be examined within a broader strategic context. Such an examination does not encourage optimism.

The Clinton administration’s foreign policy and grand strategy can be faulted on a number of accounts. First, the general approach is flawed. Second, it has increased military commitments while cutting the instrument necessary to carry out those commitments. Finally and most importantly, the steps this administration has taken have actually increased the threat that the US will face in the future.

As Charles Krauthammer observes, the foreign policy of the Clinton administration rests on three questionable pillars. The first is internationalism, the idea that objectives established by international institutions such as the United Nations take precedence over mere national interests. The second is legalism, the belief in the efficacy of treaties and international law. The third is humanitarianism, the idea that the primary role of the United States in the international arena is not to defend its national interests, but to slay the dragons of injustice and oppression worldwide.

As a result of the first and third pillars, US international commitments have proliferated, although few are undertaken to protect US national interests. Kosovo is a case in point. On the one hand, Mr. Clinton has invoked humanitarian goals rather than US national interests, e.g. stability in Europe and the credibility and viability of NATO, to justify US actions, as if foreign policy were social work. On the other, he has rationalized our intervention on the basis of multilateral internationalism and the approval of the "international community." As Mr. Krauthammer observes, the implication is that international action blessed by "the butchers of Tiananmen Square, the ex-apparatchiks of Moscow, or the cynics of Paris" is "inherently more worthy than action taken by the United States in Congress assembled and by direction of the president."

Meanwhile, as military operations for "humanitarian" purposes have proliferated, the military force structure necessary to carry out these operations has been cut during the Clinton presidency. As a result, operational tempo is extremely high, placing tremendous stress on both personnel and equipment. Readiness has suffered, modernization has been deferred, service members are leaving the military in record numbers, and recruitment shortfalls have developed over the last year. We are on our way to a "hollow force," reminiscent of the 1970s.

It is bad enough that the Clinton foreign policy has created a risky policy-strategy-force structure mismatch. More dangerous yet is the likelihood that certain steps taken by the administration will increase the threat that the US will face in the future. One source of this danger is the administration’s approach to the use of force. Another is the wholesale subordination of national security to commercial goals and the imperatives of Democratic electoral politics.

The administration’s approach to the use of force has adversely affected the credibility of the United States and encouraged brinkmanship on the part of such petty tyrants as Milosovic and Saddam. The pattern is well established. The administration threatens the use of force to reverse some step taken by Saddam or Milosovic. The dictator persists. Deadlines are announced as the US deploys its forces to the region. At the last minute the president accepts some fig leaf as an excuse for not following through on his threats, while claiming that the "international community" has prevailed.

When the Clinton administration actually has used force, it has resembled a drive-by shooting. We can only hope that the current air strikes are part of a coherent strategy that will sustain the use of force until NATO’s goals are achieved. Otherwise, the outcome will be a more dangerous region. Milosovic will acquire most of what he wanted in the first place, encouraging him to escalate tensions again when it suits his purpose. At some point, miscalculation may lead to a general Balkans war and to casualties that could have been prevented if force had been used properly in the first place.

As serious as the crisis in Kosovo may be, it should not be permitted to distract us from by far the most troubling aspect of the Clinton foreign policy: the administration’s penchant for subordinating national security concerns to the dictates of commercial policy and the imperatives of Democratic Party fundraising. China’s apparent penetration of the nuclear weapons program of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and acquisition of the technology for the W-88 nuclear warhead is only the latest manifestation of this concern. What is most disquieting about this affair is not that the Chinese have engaged in espionage against the US, but that the administration apparently dragged its feet after being informed of the evidence of Chinese espionage in order to protect its policy of "engagement" with China.

This incident is only the latest, albeit the most egregious, example of what critics see as the Clinton administration’s anything-goes China policy that involves both political fundraising for domestic election purposes and the expansion of commercial ties. Another is the evidence of a link between Clinton-Gore fundraising from illegal Asian sources and a turnabout in trade policy with China. Yet another is the connection between substantial campaign contributions from the CEO of Loral, a US defense firm, and a subsequent shift in technology transfer policy that allowed Loral to have its satellites launched by China..

Then there is the Riady family, a Chinese banking family operating from Indonesia with close connections to the Chinese government, whose man in America, John Huang, funneled illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic Party and the Clinton-Gore campaign while arranging visits of high level Chinese officials to the White House. And finally there is the case of Johnny Chung, a Democratic fund raiser and friend of Mr. Clinton who was convicted of funneling political contributions from a Chinese military officer to the Democrats.

What are the consequences of these actions? We know that Loral’s actions ultimately enabled China to improve the accuracy of its ballistic missiles. The W-88 technology permits China to load multiple independently targeted warheads on its ICBMs. These two advances alone enable China to jump a decade ahead in modernizing its nuclear arsenal.

Much is made of Mr. Clinton’s concern for his "legacy." He hopes to be remembered for what he and his supporters believe to be his domestic policy triumphs. We can only pray that his real legacy is not failure on some future battlefield arising from a flawed foreign policy that ultimately strengthened our potential adversaries.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy and Department of Defense. His e-mail address is