Former President Bill Clinton will retain a certain notoriety over the years because of L’Affaire Lewinsky and his initial efforts to lie his way out of a political disaster that led to his impeachment. In the current issue of The Atlantic, Clinton has engaged in an act of historical revisionism to put the best face possible on his fateful expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 1990s. Clinton wants us to believe that NATO expansion was central to a policy to “work for the best while preparing for the worst.” In other words, he claims the decision was based on international security and a recognition that Russia could “choose to revert to ultranationalist imperialism.” In actual fact, Clinton’s decision was based on domestic politics and had little to do with the future of the East-West relations.
Bill Clinton was whip smart when it came to domestic politics. In the run-up to his 1996 campaign for re-election, he determined that the Republican candidate would be Senator Robert Dole (R-KS), who would exploit the fact that in the mid-1990s the Clinton administration was shying away from NATO expansion. One of the keys to the success of the Democratic Party over the years had been the support of East European ethnic communities in such important states in the mid-West as Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Various ethnic delegations began arriving in Washington to lobby the Congress and the White House to overlook the opposition to expansion from European experts at the Department of State as well as such influential senators as Sam Nunn (D-GE). For domestic political reasons, particularly the 1996 election, Clinton decided to ignore this opposition and to satisfy the East European ethnic demands for NATO membership. In so doing, Clinton moved to expand a Cold War alliance that many believed had outlived its mission.
Clinton believed that he could appease Moscow by offering the Russians a special consultative voice in NATO. Six months before the election, Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the Russia-NATO Founding Act on Mutual Relations to share knowledge and intelligence, particularly on military weaponry. The Founding Act failed to lead to the promised consultation, cooperation, and coordination, let alone joint decision making, and there was increased Russian opposition to Yeltsin himself. This was predictable in view of the high-level opposition to Yeltsin’s predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, for “allowing” the reunification of Germany and its entry into NATO.
The year of the entry of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into NATO (1999) was also marked by the Kremlin’s decision to replace Yeltsin with Vladimir Putin and the first invocation of NATO’s collective security commitment that led to the air campaign against Serbia to force its evacuation from Kosovo. In other words, from the very first year of his presidency, Putin was angered and humiliated by these two decisions that stemmed from Clinton’s pressure on key West European states.
Interestingly, there was pressure on Clinton from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark to demonstrate that NATO could enhance its military capability in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Albright and Clark overestimated the results of air power, counseling Clinton that the mere threat of an air campaign would intimidate Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The start of the air campaign unfortunately coincided with the day that Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s arrived in Washington for his first official visit. The air campaign embarrassed the Kremlin and forced Primakov to turn back, demonstrating again that use of force always has unintended consequences.
An air campaign that was expected to quickly achieve its objectives turned into a bombing campaign of nearly three months, involving an armada of 829 combat aircraft, 38,000 sorties, and 28,000 weapons, with NATO forces killing more than 500 civilians. The unintentional bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade nearly led to an unintended crisis with China. When the war ended, most NATO countries agreed with Putin, favoring a peacekeeping force in Kosovo under the control of the UN or the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). The Clinton administration wanted peacekeeping to be a NATO operation, however. The compromise called for NATO peacekeepers under UN command. Germany, France, and Italy realized that the United States and Clinton had overplayed NATO’S hands, and they moved immediately to improve relations with Russia. But the damage had been done as Washington’s efforts to marginalize Russian diplomacy in Serbia; the campaign in the Balkans became an unnecessary and gratuitous affront to Moscow. Anti-Americanism reached Cold War levels in both Moscow and Beijing, marking the start of unusually close bilateral relations between the two.
Clinton’s memoir, “My Life,” records that Yeltsin was very critical of Clinton for “trading in the Cold War for a ‘cold peace’ by rushing NATO enlargement to include the Central European nations.” Ironically, Clinton didn’t comprehend that just as he was facing a presidential election against a Republican party favoring NATO expansion, Yeltsin was facing criticism from Russian nationalists who hated that expansion. Yeltsin wanted Clinton to agree to never consider former Soviet republics for membership, but Clinton refused, arguing vaguely that expansion wasn’t directed against Russia, “but against new threats to peace and stability in Europe.” That is similar to telling Russia that the U.S. missile defense system in Romania and Poland is directed against Iran….not Russia. Yeltsin reminded Clinton that Russia had been invaded by Napoleon and Hitler, and that the “trauma of those events still colored the country’s collective psychology and shaped its politics.” The list of unintended consequences continues to grow.