Bill Clinton’s Role in the Crisis Over Ukraine

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

The militarization of American foreign policy has evolved over the past thirty years. Ironically, this took place in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which should have led to reassessing U.S. national security policy and defense spending.  Democratic presidents have played a major role in this militarization because they are unwilling to challenge the Pentagon and the defense industry.

Bill Clinton was initially responsible for the militarization.  He abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and began the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Barack Obama believed that war in Afghanistan was a “good war,” and reappointed Robert Gates as secretary of defense to appease the uniformed military.  President Joe Biden even appointed a retired four-star general to the position of secretary of defense, and has given diplomacy a back seat in the twin struggles with Russia and China.  The postwar presidents understood the need to divide Moscow and Beijing, but Biden has taken actions that have inspired Russia and China to grow closer.

But it all started with Clinton, whose relations with the Pentagon were tenuous from the outset.  Clinton came into office with a reputation for manipulating the draft laws in 1969 to avoid service in Vietnam.  Clinton, moreover, alienated the military shortly after his inauguration when he suggested that he would allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military.  Of course, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and William Cohen avoided Vietnam, but Republicans typically get a pass from the Pentagon and the press when avoiding service.  Former senator John Kerry was a Vietnam War hero, but his ultimate criticism of the war was highlighted by the mainstream media and his Republican opposition.

Clinton bowed to military pressure time and time again on numerous national security issues.  His capitulations weakened or abandoned agreements dealing with the International Criminal Court; a ban on landmines; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and the Chemical Warfare Convention.  Clinton bowed to the Democratic Party’s right wing in naming James Woolsey as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  When Woolsey, a Cold Warrior, wore out his welcome on the Hill, he was forced to resign. Clinton then named an Air Force general to succeed Woolsey; the general was forced to withdraw his nomination, but this earned no mention in Clinton’s autobiography.  Similarly, Clinton’s book makes no mention of his efforts to name Admiral Bobby Inman, another Cold Warrior, as secretary of defense.  Clinton’s CIA directors, John Deutch and George Tenet, contributed to the decline of the CIA.

The Pentagon had so little respect for Clinton that, in 1994, it did not respond to the efforts of the White House to create military options for stopping the genocide in Rwanda or for countering al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Conversely, Clinton ordered the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan in 1998 in the wake of the bombings of the U.S. embassies on the Horn of Africa.  The White House argued the plant was producing lethal chemicals; no, it was producing aspirin for all of Africa and this was known to the intelligence community.  Clinton’s White House and the Pentagon ignored the warnings of the Department of State and the CIA to avoid using Yemen as a refueling stop for U.S. warships because of the threat of terrorism.  As a result, the U.S.S. Cole was targeted in 2000 with a loss of 17 U.S. sailors.

We are still dealing with the results of Clinton’s ill-informed decision making, particularly with regard to the current crisis with Russia over Ukraine.  Clinton’s decision to expand NATO virtually ensured that there would be little progress in developing a strategic approach toward Russia.  The liberated states of East Europe, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, wanted to be anchored to the West, but the proper vehicle for such an arrangement was the European Union, not NATO.  Indeed, the greatest strategic failure of the Clinton administration was its marginalization of Russia rather than anchoring Russia to the West, as suggested by the late George Kennan in his strategy of containment.

The expansion of NATO marked a betrayal of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s commitment in 1990 to not “leapfrog” East Germany if the Soviets removed their 380,000 troops from the East.  The continuing flirtation of membership for both Ukraine and Georgia, which started in 2008, has caused Russia anxieties over the changing European balance.  Expanding NATO was a gratuitous provocation, which belies U.S. accusations from high-level officials that the crisis over Ukraine is a “manufactured” one by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In January 1990, the West German foreign minister confirmed that there would not be an “expansion of NATO territory to the east” in the wake of the Soviet military withdrawal.  In my interviews with Baker and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1994, Baker acknowledged (and Shevardnadze confirmed) that he told the former foreign minister the United States would not “leapfrog” over a reunified Germany to move closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.  There are reports that Baker was willing to put this commitment in writing, but that national security adviser Brent Scowcroft convinced the president not to do so.

The sad fact is that the international calculus had nothing to do with Clinton’s decision to expand NATO.  He was concerned that his Republican opponent in1996, the late Robert Dole, was going to use the failure to expand NATO in the campaign for the presidency.  Clinton, a masterful domestic politician, moved to take the NATO issue off the table by endorsing expansion.  This played well domestically among East European communities in key states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.  George W. Bush worsened the strategic situation by recruiting former Soviet republics, the three Baltic states, for NATO and deploying a regional missile defense in Poland and Romania.

Overall, the Clinton presidency weakened the national security process by compromising the balance between the key instruments of foreign policy, ending the once central role of the Department of State.  The end to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the United State Information Service as well as the weakening of the Agency for International Development deemphasized the civilian agencies in the formation and conceptualization of U.S. foreign policy.  The Pentagon was the major winner in this rebalancing; similarly, the Pentagon’s control over the intelligence community was bolstered.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, when the only tool in the toolbox is a hammer, then all of our problems will look like nails.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for