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4.0 out of 5 stars What Drove Foreign Policy in the Clinton White House?, Nov. 14 2010
This review is from: The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (Hardcover)
It's sad, but also sadly typical, to observe the deteriorating effect that hindsight has played on the minds of so many of today's leading historians when they assess the international accomplishments of the Clinton presidency ("locust years" in the words of Timothy Garton Ash, and the less said of Tony Judt's estimation the better). More interesting, though still slightly annoying, is the critique from journalists such as James Mann, who argues that Clinton's foreign policy never truly broke with that of his Republican predecessors, and that by merely shifting the focus of policy to trade treaties and international agreements, he simply left the engine of the military industrial complex warm and waiting for George W. Bush, who then had no trouble cranking it into overdrive in the aftermath of September 11th.

Taylor Branch has been able to avoid this deluge of self pity. While his book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President is nominally a review of the Clinton presidency in its entirety, its longest and most fascinating parts deal with the motivations and inner workings of his foreign policy interventions. And it makes a strong case that while certainly not perfect, the Clinton White House was indeed passionately engaged in important foreign policy issues of the day (or at least much more so than any of its congressional peers), and that at its heart this policy was driven by a small but persistent affinity to the principles of liberal internationalism.

If this seems surprising now then it's partly a reflection of how successful those interventions were, and if they seem like small accomplishments now it's only because we have a hard time imagining how intractable those problems seemed at the time. The American people may not have given Bill Clinton one additional vote for the strong role he played in helping the people of Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Northern Ireland, but in each case the human cost of failure would have been astonishingly high. (These cases should also be kept in hand the next time someone points out that the U.S. only intervenes in areas where it has clearly defined self-interest).

The most revealing parts of the book deal with Bosnia. When we take into account that not even half a century had passed since the last time a genocidal tyrant had tried to "purify" a part of Europe, the tepid response from most European capitals is terrifying. Branch, in an offhand but eye opening remark, reveals that "key allies objected that an independent Bosnia would be "unnatural" as the only Muslim nation in Europe. He said they favored the embargo precisely because it locked in Bosnia's disadvantage.' If that wasn't enough, he also has this to add: "he (President Clinton) said President Francois Mitterrand of France had been especially blunt in saying that Bosnia did not belong, and that British officials also spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe." Really, now who can read that and say that fascism in Europe is dead? In the end, America's intervention wasn't enough to prevent Srebrenica, but it did lead to a tenuous peace in the region, and considering that they were up against an uninterested public, indifferent allies, and an openly hostile Russia, it's surprising that the situation did not degenerate into something so much worse.

Obviously, this altruistic commitment did not dominate foreign policy in those years. Rwanda stands out as a clear black eye (though it's usually forgotten that the U.S. was dealing with another genocide in Bosnia at the time, as well as a refugee crisis in Haiti), and the 1998 air strike against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan is still an example of terrible realpolitik at best or, at worst, cheap domestic consumption of the wag-the-dog variety. But the accomplishments were real, and they can't be explained away with the wave of a hand that many critics would like.
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