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Home arrow Political science arrow Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War

Dodging International Involvement

Looking at the US interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, an observer might conclude that the Clinton presidency more clearly represented an activist cycle than a disengagement phase in American foreign policy. The explanation set forth above, however, points to the reluctance, hesitations, and delays in implementation of the twin military engagements. They recall Winston Churchill’s famed observation that the Americans always do the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities. Clinton never exulted in being a wartime president during the interventions. Unlike George W. Bush, he never relished the commander-in-chief role in conducting the air wars in the Balkans. Rather, his orientation was clearly toward the country’s domestic issues. Moreover, the Clinton administration relied on air power to carry out its policies rather than large-scale ground invasions more typical of the interventionist actions of its predecessor and successor presidencies.

The final Clinton years, moreover, witnessed a pronounced retreat from international interventions. Never relishing overseas combat ventures, the Washington administration doubled down on ways to avoid anymore. After the Balkan airstrikes, the United States shouldered some postwar burdens of deploying ground forces as part of the international peacekeeping contingents needed to disarm locals, calm roiled populations, and preserve stability long enough for commerce and governance to take root. Clinton’s foreign policy team took cognizance of the costs and challenges of peace-soldiering after the back-to-back interventions into the turbulent, former Yugoslavia. Their disinclination to lead other armed intercessions was matched in the Pentagon, congress, and the American public. Not a few commentators held that the repeated humanitarian deployments were wearing out the military forces, making them unfit for the defense of genuine US interests. In fact, President Clinton incurred charges by politicians and pundits for his “social work” abroad, global “care giving,” and want of “strategic coherence” in sending armed forces hither and yon for dubious purposes.49

It was no surprise that the White House quickly looked to hand off to others two humanitarian crises in the post-Kosovo period. When violence flared in Sierra Leone, the United States chose to first broker a cease-fire and then the Lome Agreement enabling it to stage manage the formation of the UN Assistance Mission for Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). This UN effort spared direct American involvement in the West African state. But the UNAMSIL presence only delayed Forday Sankoh, a homicidal warlord, from his goal in taking over the coastal nation’s lucrative diamond mines. When the agreement collapsed and UNAMSIL stumbled, Britain dispatched paratroopers into its onetime colony to restore order. They arrested Sankoh and put to flight his drugged teenaged militia. The violence moderated there only to burst forth in neighboring Liberia, a country with a special historical tie to the United States having been partially founded by former America slaves. Still, Clinton managed to stay clear of an activist role. Liberian troubles were not properly dealt with until George W. Bush came into office. Working with the UN and neighboring countries, Washington then effected a regime change and free elections that returned normalcy to Liberia in 2005.

Halfway around the world, another war-humanitarian crisis beckoned for the Clinton administration’s attention in 1999. In the enclave of East Timor, the largely Catholic population (dating from Portuguese colonial rule) voted overwhelmingly in favor of a UN-sponsored referendum for independence from Muslim-dominated Indonesia. Reacting to the polling, anti-independence Muslim militias crossed into the eastern half of the island of Timor. Backed by the regular Indonesian military, the rampaging militias looted and burned shops and homes. They killed several hundred East Timorese and compelled some 300,000 to flee as refugees into West Timor. Seeking to escape another onerous peacekeeping mission, Clinton’s foreign policy officials prodded Australia to lead the UN-initiated International Force East Timor to impose order and to protect the East Timorese from the marauding Muslim bands. The White House assisted INTERFET with logistical support in the form of air and sea lift capacity as well as intelligence and communications capabilities. Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines contributed soldiers and military personnel with medical and engineering expertise to restore services in the ruined territory, which became an independent state in 2002.50

The Clinton government touted the turnover of the peace and healing missions to Australian leadership as a case study in outsourcing regional responsibilities to other nations. In an era when the United States was repeatedly referred to as a global policeman, Clintonian Washington was relieved to dodge the expense and effort of managing another rescue mission in a faraway land. The last years of Bill Clinton’s presidency recorded other efforts to shift gears from the Balkan exertions to an even more limited international exposure. It mostly stayed clear of dealing with threats emanating from the Middle East.

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