When Bill Clinton told a group of students in Dubai recently that the Iraq war had been a "big mistake", champions of the current White House occupant were quick to accuse him of hypocrisy. For once, they had a strong point.
To be clear, Clinton’s criticism was confined to the conduct of the war, not its premises or ethics. "We never sent enough troops," the former president lamented, "and didn’t have enough troops to control or seal the borders." At the moment, there are 160,000 US troops in Iraq; since 2003, half a million US soldiers have fought there. Would greater numbers have succeeded in doing anything other than further inflame an insurgency which is overwhelmingly conducted not by foreigners but by Iraqis, who have no need to slip over borders?
Clinton publicly backed the invasion of 2003–and he can’t credibly claim he did so because (like the US public) he was misled by White House propaganda about Iraq’s WMD and links to Al Qaeda. In fact, his administration laid the groundwork for the Iraq policy pursued by Bush.
Throughout his eight years in office, Clinton applied a ruthless sanctions regime that took the lives of at least half a million Iraqi children. He subjected Iraq (with British help) to the longest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam, ostensibly to protect the no-fly zones established in 1991. In 1993, he ordered US warplanes to destroy Iraqi intelligence centers in retaliation for the attempted assassination of George Bush Sr. In 1998, he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made regime change official US policy, and did so explicitly on the basis of the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. In December of that year, US forces–with British assistance but without UN consent–mounted a ferocious four day aerial assault on Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The pretext was Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, some of whom had been suborned by the Clinton administration to act as spies for US intelligence.
Clinton embellished his foreign policy with "humanitarian" aims and ideals, but in Iraq and beyond, he displayed the customary indifference of US presidents to human rights and the suffering of innocents. On his watch, military aid to Turkey, engaged in a scorched earth campaign against its Kurdish minority, and to Colombia, conducting a dirty war against left-wing insurgents, skyrocketed. The embargo on Cuba was tightened. Global efforts to block the militarisation of space were derailed while a stringent, self-serving neo-liberal economic regime was promoted through NAFTA and the WTO. Hundreds of thousands perished in Rwanda without Clinton lifting a finger, but he found time to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that his officials falsely alleged was producing chemical weapons.
The Kosovo War was Clinton’s "humanitarian" showpiece, waged against a genuinely vile adversary, Slobodan Milosevic, and executed without a single US fatality. But here too the record does not match the rhetoric. Clinton’s people stoked the war fires by issuing what later proved to be wildly exaggerated claims about the scale of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; at the Rambouillet conference, they made demands on Milosevic that went far beyond terminating the attacks on the Albanian population and which they knew he could not accept. The aerial assault that ensued actually precipitated precisely the large-scale ethnic cleansing it was supposed to deter. In what became a war for US and NATO "credibility", cluster bombs and depleted uranium were used, thousands of civilians died and Kosovo wound up as a half-forgotten big power protectorate, without democracy, self-rule or ethnic peace.
Clinton relished his 1993 photo-op with Arafat and Peres signing the Oslo Accord, and yearned to be seen as a middle east peace-broker, but his actions consistently bolstered Israeli intransigence and flouting of international law. Even as illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied territories expanded, Clinton kept up the flow of arms to Israel and used the US veto at the UN to protect it from criticism. In 2000, he pressed the Palestinians to abandon hopes of a genuine two-state settlement and accept instead a Bantustan dependency. The second intifada erupted that autumn. During its first days, the Israeli Defence Force fired a million bullets and other projectiles at largely unarmed opponents (one for every Palestinian child). Clinton responded by authorising the biggest sale of military helicopters to Israel in a decade–with no constraints on their use against civilians.
Chafing under the dark rule of the neo-cons, many in the US and around the world recall the Clinton era as a halcyon one. And it’s not surprising that people hunger for a lesser evil when the greater evil is Bush. But although the Bush regime, licensed by 9/11, has behaved in a particularly reckless and aggressive fashion, it is not fundamentally an aberration. The double standards on democracy and the rule of law, the claim to a unique prerogative in the use of military force, the contempt for the sovereignty of others, the cynical manipulation of public opinion to justify war: on all these Bush occupies common ground with his predecessors in the Oval office.
This column originally ran in The Hindu.