The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

Nine presidents served during the Cold War. They were Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, earthy and urbane, rich and poor, old and young. Some were Ivy Leaguers, while one didn’t even have a degree. There was a world-famous general, some bona fide war heroes and one whose military service never took him overseas. Yet for four decades, this diverse group of men followed the same roadmap to guide American foreign policy and ultimately win the Cold War.

In the two decades since the end of that long, twilight struggle, three presidents have taken three different paths on the world stage. And yet the world has reacted in largely the same manner to each: with disappointment. There’s a lesson in that.

Standing Back

“Together with our friends and allies,” President Bill Clinton declared during his first inaugural, “we will work to shape change.”

That hint of deference foreshadowed what was to come—a presidency seeking the path of least resistance on the international stage.

Clinton’s supporters look upon the resulting picture and marvel at his capacity to steer clear of the problems that weighed on his successors. Yet to his detractors, the same Rorschach inkblots look like a game of kick the can that allowed problems to metastasize. For example, although Clinton began what he called “our battle against terrorism” after the 1998 embassy bombings, it was largely rhetorical. As 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a fellow Democrat, said of the missed opportunities to cripple al Qaeda in the late 1990s, “We had a round in our chamber and we didn’t use it.” 

However, Clinton deserves some forbearance. The U.S. was drifting into uncharted waters in the 1990s. After decades of a national-security strategy premised on deterrence, reorienting U.S. national security—especially absent a cataclysm like 9/11—would be no easy task.

Even so, criticism of Clinton’s path-of-least-resistance approach—what some panned as “reflexive pullback”—is not without merit. After all, Clinton withdrew American forces when they encountered resistance in Mogadishu and Port-au-Prince; offered carrots but no sticks when North Korea threatened to go nuclear; and deferred to Europe and the UN as they flailed about trying to end the bloodletting in Bosnia.

Clinton’s reticence invited encroachment upon America’s leadership role. France’s Jacques Chirac, for instance, suggested during the Bosnia debacle that “the position of leader of the free world is vacant.” During NATO’s air war in Kosovo, The Wall Street Journal labeled Britain’s Tony Blair “de facto leader of the alliance.”

On the diplomatic front, the path of least resistance translated into going with the flow when it came to international agreements like the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the treaty that spawned the International Criminal Court (ICC). Clinton tried to keep the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty alive, even after signing legislation authorizing deployment of missile defenses, and tried to keep Russia happy, even after expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep.

But some differences cannot be reconciled—even by a gifted dealmaker.

Standing Up

President George W. Bush, on the other hand, often employed methods and rhetoric that proved irksome to allies and perhaps unnecessarily provocative to enemies. Bush himself concedes, “In retrospect, I could have used a different tone.”

His many critics agree, railing against his inflexibility and insistence on forcing the issue. Yet his supporters praise his tenacity and toughness, courage and candor. Both groups compare him to a cowboy, although one side uses the label as a slur and the other as a compliment.

Whether he was a cowboy or sheriff, Bush seemingly chose the path of most resistance, especially when it came to treaties. He could have let the ICC treaty die quietly. Instead, he expunged America’s name from it. He could have let the world believe America’s signature on Kyoto meant the U.S. supported it. Instead, he withdrew from it. He could have kept the ABM Treaty on life support. Instead, he abrogated it.

Of course, Bush’s defenders would argue that 9/11 changed everything, especially America’s approach to national security. In other words, as with Clinton, some forbearance is in order.

Still, leaders in Europe and Russia bristled at Bush’s black-and-white world, in which “Every nation…now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” UN advocates were bothered by his declaration that “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.”

As for enemies, countries sentenced to Bush’s “axis of evil” had little reason to seek absolution. So, Iraq continued to game the UN, while Iran and North Korea raced to deploy nukes—and thus deter a war of regime change.

If Clinton’s approach was minimalist, Bush’s was maximalist: Instead of simply containing Saddam Hussein, Bush would oust him. Instead of simply ousting the Iraqi dictator, he would democratize Iraq. And instead of simply democratizing Iraq, he proposed “ending tyranny in our world.”

That’s a worthy and noble goal. But in a world pock-marked with tyrants, it guarantees resistance.

Standing Off

President Barack Obama has displayed an unexpected mix of his predecessors’ foreign policies—at times unilateral (as in the strike on Osama bin Laden and the drone war), at other times eager to “lead from behind” (as in Libya and Syria).

“Leading from behind” is the term coined by one of Obama’s aides to describe his approach to foreign policy.[i]What the White House has learned since floating this unfortunate phrase is that no one likes a backseat driver.

For example, when NATO intervened in Libya, the allies expected—and deserved—lots of help from the United States. What they got was Obama’s insistence that America would play only a “supporting role” and a stunning declaration at one point during the operation that access to the full complement of U.S. air power “expires on Monday.”[ii]

The French and the British were disappointed with Washington’s halfhearted involvement.[iii] As then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy bluntly observed, “I wouldn’t say that the bulk of the work in Libya is being done by our American friends. The French and English…are doing the work.”[iv] That was a first—and not a welcome one for NATO.

France and Britain weren’t the only ones frustrated by Obama’s approach. The Russians and Chinese felt they had been hoodwinked by the resolution Washington helped shepherd through the UN Security Council, claiming it didn’t authorize NATO’s war of regime change.[v]

While on the subject of Russia and China, in response to Obama’s “Russia Reset,” Vladimir Putin announced plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes and 400 new ICBMs; launched Russia’s largest nuclear war games since the Soviet era; withdrew from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear-reduction program; and blocked UN action in Syria. 

Obama proposed “spheres of cooperation” for Beijing and Washington. In response, China bullied its South China Sea neighbors; launched countless cyber-attacks against U.S. targets; boosted defense spending by double digits annually; and retooled its military to challenge the U.S. Navy.

In his first inaugural, Obama promised the likes of Iran and North Korea to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”Tehran answered by bankrolling attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, crushing a popular revolt, racing ahead with an outlaw nuclear-weapons program, and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Similarly, Pyongyang detonated a nuclear weapon, test-fired long-range missiles, sank a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island.

Noting that “I’ve lived in a Muslim country,” Obama promised that “the day I’m inaugurated…the Muslim world will have confidence that I am listening to them.”[vi]

Yet Pew polling reveals that just 15 percent of the Muslim world approves of Obama’s policies. Opinion of the U.S. is actually lower today in some Muslim countries than during the Bush era.[vii]

Egyptians are angry that Obama didn’t do enough to push Hosni Mubarak out of power, while Saudis are angry that he did too much (while Israelis and Americans are angry that post-Mubarak Egypt is starting to look like post-Shah Iran).

Neither Obama’s biography nor his standoff foreign policy prevented Libyan terrorists from carrying out deadly attacks against U.S. embassy officials, or convinced Syria’s dictator to cede power, or persuadedPakistan’s government to capture bin Laden.

In fact, Pakistanis regularly burn Obama in effigy. Beyond the dysfunction of Pakistan’s politics, this is a function of the U.S. drone war, which is deeply unpopular overseas. “In 17 of 20 countries,” Pew reports, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” According to Pew, the drone war feeds “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries.”[viii]

In other words, the drone war has reinforced the very image Obama promised to erase.

Lonely Leader

This speaks to the broader point. No matter the president’s rhetorical style or geopolitical approach, the post-Cold War world is bound be disappointed with U.S. foreign policy, which isn’t to suggest that Washington shouldn’t care about how the world reacts. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, Americans should pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” However, this Clinton-Bush-Obama comparison reminds us there is no goldilocks foreign policy.

Clinton tried to work through the UN; contain Iraq with no-fly zones, UN inspectors and Saudi bases; and pay countries to stay out of the nuclear club. He promised “constructive engagement” with Beijing and offered Russia a privileged place inside NATO. Intent on avoiding another Somalia, he stayed out of Bosnia for three years and steered clear of Rwanda. The result: a backlash against American acquiescence, al Qaeda’s guerilla war against America, Saddam Hussein’s flouting of UN resolutions, Iran and North Korea scrambling to go nuclear, Pakistan and India crashing into the nuclear club, Beijing stealing massive amounts of nuclear-weapons technology, Moscow deploying troops to Kosovo and nearly triggering what one NATO commander called “World War III,”[ix]concentration camps in Europe, genocide in Africa, and the world again saying, “Never again.”

Bush sidestepped the UN and built coalitions of the willing to topple terrorist regimes. Intent on preventing another 9/11, he launched a preventive war based on fears that Baghdad would use or lose its WMDs. He made no deals with North Korea or Iran, isolated Syria and other rogues, promoted democracy, pointedly called Beijing a “strategic competitor,” and pursued a “constructive relationship” with Moscow. The result: a backlash against American assertiveness, a brutal civil war in Iraq that yielded no WMDs and resembled Vietnam, a bloody nation-building mission in Afghanistan, Iran’s guerilla war against America, nuclear tests in North Korea, China’s takedown of a U.S. Navy plane in international airspace, and Russia’s invasion of NATO aspirant Georgia.

Obama offered an outstretched hand to rogues; toured Muslim capitals to reboot American foreign policy; downplayed democratization; ended the postwar war in Iraq; launched a remote-control war in Yemen and Pakistan; handed NATO’s keys to Britain and France; and, intent on avoiding another Iraq, stayed out of Syria. The result: a backlash against American aloofness, a brutal civil war in Syria that resembles Bosnia, the threat that Damascus might use or lose its WMDs, the rise of Islamists in Egypt and spread of jihadist groups in North Africa, more nuclear tests in North Korea, more bloodshed in Afghanistan, more Iranian mischief and more Iranian centrifuges. 

The lesson is that no president—no matter how flexible or firm his foreign policy—can please every ally or placate every foe. The path of global leadership is always a lonely one, which points the way toward an elegantly simple way for presidents to craft and conduct foreign policy: Do what’s in America’s best interests.


[ii] USA Today, "Obama team: Libya is not a 'war,'" Mar 24, 2011; CNN, "Fighting continues in Libya, as does debate on arming rebels," April 04, 2011;

[iii] Edward Cody, "France, Britain want NATO to fight harder against Gaddafi’s forces," Washington Post, April 12, 2011; David Gauthier Villars, "France, Calling for Helicopter Strikes, Laments Limited U.S. Role in Conflict," Wall STreet Journal, May 26, 2011.

[iv]ANGELA CHARLTON AND SLOBODAN LEKIC, "Sarkozy lashes at U.S., defends Libya campaign," June 24, 2011, ASSOCIATED PRESS


[vi] New Hampshire Public Radio, November 21, 2007, http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-TV/2012/09/14/FLASHBACK-Obama-The-Day-Im-Inaugurated-Muslim-Hostility-Will-Ease; Remarks by President Barack Obama, June 4, 2009.

[vii] Pew, "Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted," June 13, 2012

[viii] Pew, "Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted," June 13, 2012

[ix] The Guardian, "'I'm not going to start Third World War for you,' Jackson told Clark," August 2, 1999