Archive for August, 1999

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus.]

Since the 1992 election, the Clinton administration has done nothing to develop a coherent, consistent foreign policy, opting instead for policy based on political expediency. Clearly, the first White House question on any international issue is “What’s in it for us?”

It is said that the decision to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders was connected to Clinton’s desire to win Czech, Hungarian and Polish votes in Chicago during the 1992 presidential campaign.  If true, and if that is characteristic of his overall foreign policy, then one should expect the results to be chaotic.

World stability has always depended primarily on the predictability of the foreign policies of the major powers.  During the Cold War, when the world seemed as close as it could get to self-destruction, there was really little to fear.  American officials knew exactly what the Soviets would do in any number of truly important situations and the Soviets knew the same about us.  We were both comfortably predictable in matters that truly concerned our “vital national interests”, largely because each knew exactly what those “vital national interests” were.

America is now in the process of becoming a real threat to world stability.  We are pursuing a foreign policy that has no perceivable thread of consistency.  We are leaving it to other nations to figure out just exactly what we are doing or will do, primarily because we don’t know ourselves.  How can our actual and potential protagonists figure out what we are up to when our observable policies are so totally inconsistent?  How are the Russians and the Chinese reacting to us?

Why does Russia take a back seat in our foreign policy concerns in Kosovo and just about everywhere else. Russia remains the only country in the world with the means (and under certain circumstances, the resolve) to blow us off the face of the earth.  Yet, we have treated them cavalierly, almost rudely, as if punishing them for losing the Cold War.  In the past decade we have antagonized them with our policy in the former Yugoslavia and with our totally unnecessary enlargement of NATO membership to include former allies of the USSR.  We are making it a more dangerous world in which to live.

A big part of our problem lies in the act that the Clinton administration is trying to broaden the meaning of the term “vital national interest”.  This term used to be defined quite narrowly and focused on critical political or economic interests like our continuing access to Middle East oil.  Now we are being told that preventing genocide is in our “vital National Interest”.  There is a preachy, moralistic tone that creeps into Clinton administration pronouncements on genocide.  But their message is mixed and hypocritical when we see nothing done to stop genocide in Africa or Asia.  It doesn’t work to be simultaneously preachy, moralistic and inconsistent.

If fighting genocide is in our vital national interest, why do we absolutely ignore the Kurds?  In their case, we actively support the Turks who are the ones trying to do them in.  It has been reported that we assisted the Turks in the recent capture of the Kurdish leader, Mr. Ocalan.  It seems that we limit genocide in the “vital national interest” to expedient fights in white Europe.  At very least, this Clinton administration ignores the Kurdish victims of genocide in favor of the expedience of its policy vis a vis
Turkey and southeastern Europe.

Worst of all, we are seeing the Clinton administration trying to effect the change without sufficient national debate.  We are constantly being told that our Kosovo policy is in the “vital national interest”, but just about everyone knows that it doesn’t fit the old definition.  Given the ambivalence of the administration on non-European, – particularly African – genocide, many are unconvinced by White House arguments that combating genocide is in the vital national interest.  Largely because of its own policy inconsistencies, the White House has failed to make the case.

Every time we have broadened or cheapened the meaning of “vital national interest” in the recent past – in Vietnam, Haiti, Lebanon, Grenada, Bosnia and Kosovo and then made questionable commitments, we have created major disagreement and dissent among Americans.  When we have stuck to the old definition – in World War Two and the Persian Gulf – there has been generally broad support among Americans.

Finally, these recent flings in Bosnia and Kosovo were undertaken in the face of a history that predicts failure.  These two adventures alone have cost hundreds of millions.  We will continue to throw hundreds of millions more at them for a very long time.  One has to ask of any of these old, intractable, Balkan problems are going to be solved by U.S. money even if it (against all odds) gets into the right pockets.  Whether we like it or not we simply can’t solve every problem in the world.

Unfortunately, our current policies make the kind of mess one can expect from an administration that has never had any practical or philosophical foundation for foreign policy other than the most recent New York Times poll.

Haviland Smith, who lives in Williston, is a retired CIA station Chief who specialized in Soviet and East European affairs.

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