How Bill Clinton Set the Groundwork For Today’s Foreign Policy Disasters

Now in the twilight of his life, Bill Clinton remains a towering figure in modern American politics and an elder statesman who commands respect in certain political and intellectual circles despite all the baggage that he brings forth.

In one presidential ranking poll, Clinton placed second, while in many others he placed in the top 15 or 20. One biographer, Nigel Hamilton, alleges that Clinton “came close to greatness as president.” Another, Michael Tomasky, suggests that Clinton “left an enviable record of achievements.”

These kinds of assessments overlook the terrible consequences of Clinton’s domestic policies (ie. the growth of mass incarceration and 2008/09 financial crisis resulting from banking deregulation) along with Clinton’s foreign policy record and how his administration set the groundwork for the malign foreign policies that followed.

Clinton came to power at a time when many were calling for cutbacks in overseas military commitments with the end of the Cold War and a transfer of military funds to domestic programs such as health care and education. The idea of a “peace dividend” was encouraged by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who testified before Congress on December 13, 1989, that the $300 billion annual Pentagon budget could be safely cut in half over the next decade. “By such a shift,” said McNamara, “we should be able to enhance global stability, strengthen our own security and, at the same time, produce the resources to support a much-needed restructuring of the economy.”

McNamara’s vision, unfortunately, was never implemented. After the Republican Party gained control of the House of Representatives in January 1995, in an effort to appease opposition on his political Right, Clinton increased military spending more than the Pentagon had requested, and in the fiscal year 2000, he sought an increase of $4 billion and then $100 billion over the next six years. By the end of Clinton’s first term, he had already ordered U.S. troops into 25 separate military operations, compared to 17 in Reagan’s two terms.

The Clinton administration’s policy to go ahead with NATO expansion on Russia’s border—in violation of a pledge made by the previous Bush administration to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev—was undoubtedly one of the most disastrous of his presidency that helped trigger a new Cold War. Containment doctrine author George F. Kennan had warned that NATO expansion would amount to a “strategic blunder of epic proportions” and the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,” as it would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion, restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations,” and “impel Russian foreign policy in a direction decidedly not to our liking.” Which is exactly what has transpired.

Clinton also helped to lay the groundwork for the Bush II administration’s war in Iraq by bombing Iraq repeatedly, imposing deadly sanctions on it, supporting a failed coup against Saddam Hussein, and raising false alarms about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) which were known not to exist.

In expanding on Reagan’s War on Terror, the Clinton administration employed methods that would later become infamous in the Global War on Terror—extraordinary rendition that resulted in the torture of suspects, drone surveillance, and the bombing of sovereign nations extending into Africa. Clinton generally deepened U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Africa, with 73,000 U.S. troops acting in support of various United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions. The UN cover helped sustain the illusion of a disinterested and humanitarian intervention while winning over liberal opinion. As Peter Krogh, the Dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, put it in 1999, the Clinton administration promoted a “foreign policy of sermons and sanctimony accompanied by the brandishing of tomahawks.”

Perhaps the hallmark moment of Clinton’s presidency was the famous image in September 1993 of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, flanked by Clinton, shaking hands with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader, and former fedayeen guerrilla, Yasser Arafat after the signing of the Oslo peace accords. These accords, however, helped to solidify Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through local proxies and were followed by the expansion of Israeli settlements. Palestinian scholar Edward Said compared Clinton’s performance to a “20th Century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance, all these only temporarily obscuring the truly astonishing proportion of the Palestinian capitulation.”

In 1993, Clinton loosened export controls on military-related technologies and blocked an arms sales code of conduct that would prevent weapons transfers to nations with poor human rights records. Clinton also bowed to Pentagon pressure by refusing to sign UN treaties banning anti-personnel landmines and the use of child soldiers, and failed to effectively challenge the Pentagon’s opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty banning nuclear weapons tests.

Learning from the master, many Clintonite disciples—including Leon Panetta, Rahm Emmanuel, Susan Rice, less known figures like Ivo Daalder, Harold “Killer” Koh, Wendy Sherman, Tom Donilon, and of course, Hillary Clinton—would go on to help run U.S. foreign policy in the Obama and Biden administrations, which extended Clinton’s policies in so many ways.

Cloaked under a liberal veneer, the legacy policies of Clinton ratcheted up further provocations towards Russia and China, used Ukraine as a battering ram directed against Russia, invaded Libya under the pretext of a humanitarian intervention, waged a covert war by arming Islamic fundamentalists in Syria, supported Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, pivoted the U.S. military to Asia, and ramped up the militarized War on Drugs (in Plan Mérida, for example, which was modeled after the Clinton administration’s Plan Colombia). Clinton’s legacy policies further promoted more free trade agreements designed to expand U.S. corporate power and sanctions to ruin the economy of regimes they didn’t like, and subsidized opposition media and political parties in countries that promoted an independent foreign policy.

Obama and Biden administration officials were very skilled in fabricating atrocity stories or exaggerating the human rights abuses of U.S. government enemies to win liberal support for military interventions that killed thousands of civilians and destroyed entire countries. They also adopted Clinton’s tactic of using smears and red-baiting to destroy political opponents, even manufacturing a fake political scandal called Russiagate to accuse a Republican president of treason and ratchet up public support for a war with Russia that threatened the outbreak of World War III.

The Clinton administration should ultimately be remembered for squandering an opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy in a more peaceful direction after the end of the Cold War, and for instead placing the country on the trajectory of permanent war that is now accelerating the country’s moral and spiritual decline while plunging it into economic bankruptcy. Clinton is definitely one of the warmongering presidents of which unfortunately there are too many.

Jeremy Kuzmarov is the author of The Russians are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce (Monthly Review Press, 2018) and Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting for the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019).