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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Clinton doctrine

By Charles Krauthammer

March 29, 1999
Web posted at: 11:27 a.m. EST (1627 GMT)

TIME magazine

"I want us to live in a world where we get along with each other, with all of our differences, and where we don't have to worry about seeing scenes every night for the next 40 years of ethnic cleansing in some part of the world."
--President Clinton, March 23, 1999

So there you have it, finally, a concise summation of the Clinton foreign policy of the '90s: the Clinton Doctrine. From the President's "nation building" escalation in Somalia to the invasion of Haiti, to the diplomatic capital spent on the Irish and Middle East peace processes, to the occupation of Bosnia and now fatefully to the bombing of Serbia in defense of Kosovo, we have the core of how the Clinton Administration sees the world and what the U.S. should be doing in it.

The Clinton Doctrine is an expression, in policy and in bombs, of a post-cold war approach to the world perhaps best enunciated by Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 1994, Gelb wrote that America's "main strategic challenge" in the world was no longer dealing with Russia or China or Germany or trade or loose nukes. It was managing the "teacup wars" of the world, "wars of national debilitation, a steady run of uncivil civil wars sundering fragile but functioning nation-states."

Clinton's actions and Clinton's words are the very embodiment of this idea. To justify bombing Serbia over Kosovo, he reiterates in every possible variation the imperative for the U.S. to oppose "ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of innocent people."

The problem with this doctrine, for all the ringing moral satisfaction it gives, is that it is impossibly moralistic and universal. It cannot be the policy of the U.S. Even as the Clinton people say it, they cannot believe it. Why? Because they remember Krajina.

In August 1995, Croatia launched a savage attack on Krajina, a region of Croatia that Serbs had inhabited for 500 years. Within four days, the Croatians drove out 150,000 Serbs, the largest ethnic cleansing of the entire Balkan wars. Investigators with the war-crimes tribunal in the Hague have concluded that this campaign was carried out with brutality, wanton murder and indiscriminate shelling of civilians. The tribunal is bringing war-crime indictments against high Croatian officials.

Krajina is Kosovo writ large. And yet, at the time, the U.S. did not stop or even protest the Croatian action. The Clinton Administration tacitly encouraged it. Croatia was being advised by a shadowy group of retired American officers who had been sent to Croatia to help it fight against the Serbs.

No denunciation. No sanctions. No bombing. No indignant speeches about ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of innocents. In fact, in justifying the current bombing of Serbia, Clinton made an indirect reference to this Croatian campaign when he credited the "courageous people in Bosnia and in Croatia" who "fought back" against the Serbs and "helped to end the war." Indeed, they did. Croatia's savage ethnic cleansing so demoralized the Serbs that they soon agreed to sign the Dayton peace accord of 1995.

Proving simply that highfalutin moral principles are impossible guides to foreign policy. At worst, they reflect hypocrisy; at best, extreme naivete. After all, if America stands against "ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of innocent people"--the essence of the Clinton Doctrine and the reason American, allied and Serb lives are now being risked over Kosovo--why the utter indifference and silence to the teacup civil wars, far more deadly, brutal and enduring, raging in Sierra Leone, Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka?

The Clinton Doctrine aspires to morality and universality. But foreign policy must be calculating and particular. Clinton proclaims he is going into battle for the principle that ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of innocents can never be tolerated by a civilized world. Yet on his watch, half a million innocents were massacred in Rwanda in the only true genocide since the Holocaust, and he lifted not a finger to stop it.

The State Department's inspector general has just charged a high-ranking American diplomat with lying to Congress concerning what he knew about the murder of a prominent opponent of the regime we installed in Haiti. Death-squad killings by the former rulers were a principal justification for the U.S. invasion. Are we not opposed to death squads in general?

But as Haiti turns dictatorial and as the killing of regime opponents continues unsolved and uncurbed, the Clinton Administration remains unmoved. Indeed, it seems quite inclined to cover up the current horrors. Why? Because an American-installed regime is doing the dirty work. As Franklin Roosevelt said of another dictator in the Caribbean, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

The essence of foreign policy is deciding which son of a bitch to support and which to oppose--in 1941, Hitler or Stalin; in 1972, Brezhnev or Mao; in 1979, Somoza or Ortega. One has to choose. A blanket anti-son of a bitch policy, like a blanket anti-ethnic cleansing policy, is soothing, satisfying and empty. It is not a policy at all but righteous self-delusion.


Cover Date: April 5, 1999

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