This is the 20th and final chapter in the series on George Herring From Colony to Superpower. that Erik Loomis and I have embarked upon. The twentieth chapter runs from roughly the end of the first Gulf War until about 2007. The world that faced Clinton and the second George Bush was very different than that which his Cold War predecessors had to deal with. Unfortunately, neither Clinton nor Bush developed practical policies for managing and maintaining US hegemony. Clinton muddled through with varying levels of effectiveness, while the Bush administration developed a coherent ideology of the United States’ place in the world that had disastrous effect when put into practice. For better or worse, the United States still lacks a practicable vision of what it wants the world to look like, not to mention any reasonable conception of how best to press that vision forward.
Bill Clinton was woefully unprepared to handle foreign policy when he became President. That his successor was a major disaster in spite of having an experienced cabinet shouldn’t obscure this; Clinton had little interest and less experience in foreign affairs when he became President in 1993. His National Security Advisor is supposed to have said “Bill Clinton was elected for domestic policy. Our job is to keep foreign policy away from him.” Still, it’s hard to point to clear, enduring missteps that the administration took during its first term. Clinton handled North Korea as well as could have been hoped, and certainly better than his successor. He bears some responsibility for the disaster in Somalia; his predecessor left a bit of a mess, but Clinton didn’t improve the situation. Clinton didn’t have any very clear ideas of how to handle Iraq, but then at that time no one did; the general assumption was that Saddam Hussein couldn’t maintain control for an extended period of time. US intervention in Bosnia turned out more or less positively, leaving space for both interventionists and non-interventionists to complain. Russia policy is perhaps the one area in which Clinton’s fumbling may have had enduring effect, but again, it’s unclear what the alternatives to strongly supporting Yeltsin were. Clinton could have said no to NATO expansion, but given uncertainty about long-term Russian intentions, I think that the inclusion of Eastern Europe was defensible.
Over time, Clinton got better at the practice of foreign policy, and adopted a certain vision of liberal internationalism. There may be enduring questions about the wisdom of the intervention in Kosovo, but maintaining the alliance during the war was a diplomatic accomplishment. Clinton’s Israel/Palestine policy also left much to be desired, but given his successor it probably represented the last, best chance for a peace settlement. The lasting error of the second half of the Clinton administration may have been the steady rhetorical surrender to the foreign policy of neoconservatism. On Iraq in particular, Clinton ceded the ideological ground on deposing Saddam Hussein while retaining the practical control over the decision for war. This would have devastating consequences during the administration of his successor, as Clinton’s surrender undercut the ability of the Democratic Party to put up serious resistance to Bush’s march to war.
Herring gives as cogent and reasonable an explanation for intervention in Iraq as I’ve seen. Ideology, fear, political power, and oil were all drivers, and they weren’t mutually exclusive. Herring doesn’t waste time singing the praises of Colin Powell; Powell decided, in the end, that the United States really had reached the end of its options with Iraq, and the war was preferable to the status quo. Indeed, Herring doesn’t have very much to say about Powell, relative to the other members of the cabinet. He reminds us that the war was a bad idea conducted with great ineptitude and a deep lack of seriousness. In the end, almost no one got what they had wanted.
Curiously, Herring suggests that the Bush administration does represent a serious break with previous American foreign policy practice in its preference for preventive wars. I find this interesting because Herring has, in the full narrative, suggested that the discontinuities of US foreign policy over time aren’t that discontinuous at all. In particular, he has argued that a certain vision of American exceptionalism has always prevailed ideologically, and that this has had predictably policy effect over the centuries. In this context, it’s interesting that he sees Bush as a major discontinuity. One possibility is that this book took a very long time to write, and accordingly it would have been difficult to work in a full appreciation of how much a shift the Bush administration represented in the full narrative of the book.
A bit more to come in terms of general wrap up…