The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd
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.
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.
“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
But some differences cannot be reconciled—even by a gifted dealmaker.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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,
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
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.
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
[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