Fraser Forum | 10.1.08
By Alan W. Dowd

Looking at his immediate predecessors, the next president will find two distinct models of international leadership.

President Bill Clinton was driven by the need for approval at home and abroad. The late historian David Halberstam once described him as “addicted to polls” (2001: 103). As a result, Clinton usually chose the path of least resistance on the international stage. His supporters look upon the resulting picture and marvel at his political agility. His detractors blame Clinton’s malleability for allowing international challenges to metastasize.  

President George W. Bush, on the other hand, seemingly chose the path of most resistance, often defying global public opinion. His supporters praise his tenacity and toughness; his critics rail against his inflexibility and “go it alone” attitude.

What’s striking about these divergent approaches is how they led to similar destinations. There is a lesson in this for the next president.


“Together with our friends and allies,” Clinton declared during his first inaugural speech, “we will work to shape change” (Clinton, 1993).

That hint of deference marked a retreat from the position the United States held throughout the Cold War. One of its early manifestations in the post-Cold War world was in Mogadishu, where 18 American troops, ostensibly working with UN peacekeepers, were ambushed and killed during a daylong gun battle in October 1993.

But the real problems began later that month, when Clinton, anguished by Mogadishu, withdrew a US-Canadian peacekeeping force from the coast of Haiti after a ragtag mob threatened to block its landing. “Rarely,” Halberstam later wrote, “had the United States looked so impotent” (273).

The aftershocks would be felt for the balance of Clinton’s presidency. As Niall Ferguson notes, Britain, sensing Clinton’s reticence, “smothered American proposals” to lift the arms embargo and launch unfettered air strikes in Bosnia (144).

North Korea gamed the international community with threats to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty, promises to denuclearize, and the occasional missile test.

With the exception of the Landmine Treaty, Clinton usually went with the flow when it came to international agreements, endorsing Kyoto, agreeing to the treaty that spawned the International Criminal Court (ICC), and refusing to bury the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (even after signing legislation authorizing deployment of missile defenses).

Although Clinton began what he called “our battle against terrorism” after the 1998 embassy bombings, it was largely rhetorical (Clinton, 1998). “We had a round in our chamber and we didn't use it,” 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a fellow Democrat, later fumed (CNN, March 23, 2004).

Clinton flexed America’s muscle during his second term, but the “low-grade war” over Iraq served no strategic purpose, and the 78-day war from 30,000 feet against Serbia barely broke Milosevic’s grip on Kosovo and nearly broke NATO.

Bush, for his part, came to the White House promising to conduct the foreign policy of “a humble nation.” He did not, however, keep that promise and instead most often chose the path of most resistance.

Bush seemingly looked for a fight, especially when it came to treaties. He could have let the ICC treaty die in the Senate. Instead, he expunged America’s name from it. He could have kept the ABM Treaty on life support. Instead, he abrogated it. He could have continued to live under the fiction that America’s signature on Kyoto meant the US supported it. Instead, he withdrew from it.

In the war on terror, Bush often employed methods and words that proved irksome to allies and threatening to enemies. Sentenced to an “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea raced to deploy weapons that would preserve their regimes. Even those who stood with America were not always shown proper care. Consider the arms-length treatment NATO nations received after they invoked Article V (the alliance’s collective-defense provision) on September 12, 2001, Washington’s foot-dragging in handing over Australians and Brits at GuantanamoBay, or the sometimes-dismissive attitude toward coalition-building. Before the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, declared, “Leadership in the right direction finds followers and supporters” (Rennie, 2002, Aug. 29).

Bush could have simply contained Saddam Hussein, but he decided to overthrow him. He vowed not only to overthrow him, but also to democratize Iraq. And he would not simply democratize Iraq, but he would pursue the goal of “ending tyranny in our world.”

Citing Bush’s sub-freezing approval ratings and seven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the critics have written off his foreign policy as a failure. Yet the final verdict will not be handed down for many years. As those years tick by, it is possible that Bush’s controversial foreign policy will result in unexpected outcomes. Consider how Harry Truman left the White House—unpopular, politically weak, the architect of a doctrine that thrust America into an open-ended war in Asia and costly commitments in Europe. But decades later, Truman and his doctrine were credited with winning the Cold War.


Critics of Bush’s foreign policy are dubious of such a rehabilitation. They point to mushrooming nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, bin Laden’s ability to gain targets and converts after Washington’s plunge into Iraq, Russia’s bullying of the Baltics and battering of Georgia, a fractured Atlantic alliance, and a throbbing Middle East as proof that the United States has been too confrontational during the Bush presidency.

Of course, it was during the Clinton presidency—a period when Washington was perceived as more accommodating—that North Korea initiated what Michael O’Hanlon calls its “basement-bomb program” (2002, Oct. 21), bin Laden acted with impunity, Russia laid waste to Chechnya and blocked NATO in Kosovo, Pakistan crashed into the nuclear club, Milosevic bludgeoned the Balkans, and France refused to enforce UN resolutions in Iraq.

Indeed, Clinton’s path of least resistance exposed serious divisions within the West and invited encroachment upon Washington’s leadership role. Jacques Chirac, for instance, suggested during the Bosnia debacle that “the position of leader of the free world is vacant” (Halberstam, 2001: 305). Later, as NATO’s hamstrung air war faltered in Kosovo, The Wall Street Journal (1999, May 25) labeled Tony Blair “de facto leader of the alliance.”

Bush’s path of most resistance further accentuated the transatlantic divide. It pitted “Old Europe” against “New Europe,” Franco-German soft power against Anglo-American hard power, Hans Blix’s inspectors against a “coalition of the willing.”

If the path of least resistance left the impression that Washington lacked the will to respond in Mogadishu, Yongbyon or Yemen, the path of most resistance left the impression that Washington lacked the capacity to respond in places like Iran or North Korea—since the US military was tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even Bush’s advocates concede that his strategy, in the words of John Lewis Gaddis, “rattled more dominoes than intended” (2004: 99–100).

Fouad Ajami concludes that Bush unleashed “a terrible storm,” albeit a necessary one in his view (2006: 282). The United States wouldn’t be protected from the storm. As a consequence, “caution” would be “the animating principle of American conduct abroad” after Iraq’s brutal postwar war (Ajami, 2006: xv).

McCain vows to pursue “good international citizenship,” calling himself “a realistic idealist,” which, in his own words, translates into:

  • “an aggressive strategy of confronting and rooting out the terrorists wherever they seek to operate” (McCain, 2008a);
  • a sobering view that “there’s only one thing worse than military action against Iran … and that is a nuclear-armed Iran” (Sidoti);
  • a conviction that terrorists and their patrons “will not be placated by fresh appeals to the better angels of their nature” (McCain, 2008a).

There are certainly echoes of the Bush Doctrine here. Perhaps predictably Obama promises a departure from the last eight years:

  • “Partnership and cooperation among nations is … the only way, to protect our common security,” he says. “Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice and a global commitment to progress” (Obama, 2008c).
  • Despite the UN’s pre- and postwar limitations in Iraq, Obama believes the organization has the “capability to keep the peace, resolve disputes, monitor disarmament and support good governance around the world” (Obama, 2008b).
  • And he vows to “strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity” (Obama, 2007).

Hard work

Of course, US leaders have always sought common ground with other nations and international approval for their policies. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, Americans should pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” But as Bush and Clinton remind us, no US president—no matter how firm or flexible his foreign policy—can please every ally or placate every foe.

The next president should keep these examples in mind as he walks the lonely path of global leadership, recognizing that it is hard and usually unpleasant work. That doesn’t mean Washington should be hard or unpleasant to deal with. However, it does mean that someone, somewhere, will always find fault with Washington’s methods and objectives, regardless of the party affiliation of the president.