President Clinton was morally disgraced at home only to become a moral crusader abroad four months after being impeached. His newly discovered moralism, however, began to emerge two months after the Drudge Report broke the Lewinsky liaison.
Who expected such a turnaround from Bill Clinton? Even more surprising, who thought that it would be rooted in steps taken by Ronald Reagan and George Bush? Did anybody think that such a domestic-oriented president would usher in the most ambitious U.S. foreign-policy doctrine since Harry Truman? What was predictable, however, was that any Clinton doctrine would be as morally ambiguous as its author.
The ensuing tension of the Lewinsky crisis did not stop Clinton from making an unprecedented trip to Africa. In March 1998 in Kigali, Clinton became America’s first leader to apologize to foreigners, in this case Rwandans. In doing so, he was admonishing his own administration’s failure back in 1994 to call Rwanda’s then-ongoing ethnic slaughter of up to 1 million people –or well over half Rwanda’s minority Tutsis– genocide.
Last week President Clinton finally expressed his contrition about Rwanda at home. In a May 13 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said about the situation in Kosovo: “I think the only thing we have seen that really rivals that, rooted in ethnic or religious destruction, in this decade is what happened in Rwanda. And I regret very much that the world community was not organized and able to act quickly there as well.”
Saying I’m Sorry
The United States has been legally obligated to stop crimes of genocide since President Ronald Reagan’s last year in office. Though few people have ever heard of it and there is no enforcement mechanism, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide obligates all its signatories to “undertake [measures] to prevent and to punish” genocide whenever it occurs. The United States ratified it in 1988.
Although it took America 40 years to agree to it, the genocide convention preceded by one year the four Geneva conventions that the international community developed in response to the many war crimes including the Holocaust of six million Jews by Germany during World War II.
In June 1998, Clinton articulated another piece of his doctrine at home. In response to a reporter’s question about Kosovo during a general press conference, he said: “I am determined to do all that I can to stop a repeat of the human carnage in Bosnia and the ethnic cleansing” that occurred there before.
On Feb. 26, this year, in a speech hosted by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Clinton articulated a big nugget of his doctrine: “It’s easy, for example, to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brush land in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”
Two weeks later, Clinton took a rare step that was consistent with the same general theme. He expressed regret to Guatemalans in Guatemala City for the contribution that the CIA and other U.S. agencies had made to their military’s war crimes during and even after the Cold War.
Clinton made his third act of foreign contrition the evening he informed the nation that he was leading NATO into attacking Yugoslavia: “The world did not act early enough to stop” abuses in Bosnia back in 1995, he said, even though “[t]his was genocide in the heart of Europe.” By admonishing the world for its inaction then, Clinton was pointing his finger again at himself — and again at the United States.
The road less taken
The United States has long avoided intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, especially when they involve messy secessionist issues, irrespective of any human-rights concerns. But Clinton has developed a bold new doctrine that urges intervention to stop crimes of genocide when we can or “where our values and our interests are at stake.” The doctrine has so far been accompanied by no further guidelines to assess future situations.
The Clinton doctrine builds upon previous foreign-policy measures. Besides following a course that occurred under Reagan, the Clinton doctrine follows the lead of President George Bush.
Bush took two initiatives during his last year in office that pushed the United States in its current direction. He established the precedent of U.S.-led humanitarian intervention by deploying U.S. troops in 1992 to Somalia to help feed its starving people. Later that year, he warned Yugoslavia’s Serbian leader, President Slobodan Milosevic, that the United States would bomb Yugoslavia if Milosevic went ahead with his plans then to attack Kosovo.
After Clinton assumed office in 1993, the Somalia intervention failed, and U.S. troops were withdrawn after the killings of 19 U.S. servicemen by well-armed Somali clans. Nonetheless, the bipartisan effort undertaken there marks the beginning of a rising trend. The following year the Clinton administration, after several false starts, sent U.S. troops to Haiti to force the reinstatement of its deposed, but elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The Clinton administration later sent U.S. troops to Bosnia in a peacekeeping capacity along with European allies to enforce compliance of the Dayton accords.
Realists have opposed most of America’s interventions in the 1990s on the grounds that the United States has had no national interests at stake. In fact, not even the radical critic Noam Chomsky — no foreign-policy realist, he — writing in Harper’s sees a hidden economic agenda in NATO’s current intervention over Kosovo.
In search of consistency
A moralist creed, the Clinton doctrine is unprecedented in its full-body embrace of human rights. Either it marks a clear break, or it contradicts certain U.S. practices of the Cold War, while it remains in contradiction with several ongoing U.S. practices. In 1947, the Truman doctrine made the case for the United States to embark on a prolonged strategy of containment of the Soviet Union.
In Vietnam, Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere, the United States backed Cold War practices that involved serious human-rights abuses. Today, NATO and the United States now all accept the premise that national sovereignty is no protection against perpetrators of egregious human-rights crimes, though the United States still is only doing so selectively. Even as it crusades for human rights in the Balkans, the Clinton administration is continuing to provide military and intelligence assistance to countries including Turkey and Colombia, irrespective of their ongoing gross human-rights abuses in their prolonged campaigns against ethnic Kurds and Marxist guerrillas, respectively.
But who expected Bill Clinton to be consistent? And does anybody now expect him to keep his word? One danger of the Clinton doctrine is that it will discredit the notion of humanitarian intervention as well as the credibility of both NATO and the United States. Another is that it will come to place more burdens on America than Americans are prepared to take. However noble his doctrine’s objectives, Clinton still lacks the moral authority he needs to accomplish them.
Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist, is a contributor to the forthcoming book, Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.