A Response to Roger Alford

A Response to Roger Alford

Thanks to Roger Alford, Matt Waxman, Ken Anderson, Chris Borgen, and Peggy McGuiness for their interesting posts today.

I wanted to respond to Roger’s very astute observation about 1993. We do write about the disaster on the national security side, but as he notes, Clinton also got NAFTA passed that year, which was a major achievement.

It was really striking to us as we did the research for the book the difference between Clinton on economics and Clinton on national security in that first year. He was so confident of his knowledge of globalization and knew that he wanted America to engage the world not retreat from it. Yet he was so lacking in confidence on the national security side. He had just an awful time with Somalia (and as we report, his team handled the aftermath of the events of October 1993 incredibly poorly). In Haiti, there was the embarrassing retreat of the Harlan County in 1993, but Clinton did push forward more successfully the following year. Bosnia went terribly in 1993-94 but Clinton did achieve an end to the war in 1995, marking his emergence as a foreign policy president. Another good example of the difference in economic and national security policy came in early 1995, when Clinton provided a bailout to Mexico despite polls showing 80% of the population opposed it. That required a degree of confidence he would only start developing later that year in national security.

There are at least two reasons for talking about 1993 as a disaster, despite the economic triumph Roger points to (and there were other successes that year such as passing the aid package for Russia). One is that the national security disasters that year defined Clinton for many as bumbling when it came to being commander-in-chief, and that picture remained even after later successes such as NATO enlargement, a show of force in the Taiwan Strait, and the Kosovo war. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, his campaign team articulated a critique of Clinton that really stemmed from the failures in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia in that first year.

Secondly, Clinton got NAFTA passed in 1993 thanks to Republican support in Congress. Republicans had told him he needed to get half the votes from his own party, because they wanted Clinton to have a bruising fight with his fellow Democrats. In the end, he could only pull 102 Democrats, and he was constantly fighting an uphill battle with his party throughout the decade. Many believed he had pulled the Democrats to the center on trade during his time in office, but look at the discussion of NAFTA in the primary campaign this spring. Many believed that Clinton’s support for trade, including the passage of Permanent Normal Trading Relations with China in 2000, hurt Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. So yes, Roger is correct to remind us of the Clinton successes on trade in 1993-94, but they were overshadowed during his presidency by the early problems on the national security side, and they are overshadowed today by the ongoing fight within the Democratic Party about the best way to respond to globalization.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

One common thread I would suggest between the 1993 failures of Clinton and today is the mismatching of objectives with resources. We have just done it on a greater scale than in Clinton’s time with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think the speed of the reunification of Germany in 1990 (and what that foretold for the reconstruction of the European space) together with the emergence of the Eastern European countries was an incredible unexpected change “on the ground” that took us all a while to address.

While the assuredness of Clinton is discussed in the post 1993 period, surely we have not forgotten the pitiful performances in the Rwandan genocide (1994) and the Srebenica massacre (1995). We all watched that happen and did not do a thing about it.