The Clinton Administration and International Law

by Roger Alford

Let me raise the uncomfortable subject of the Clinton Administration’s commitment to international law. Chollet and Goldgeier offer three episodes that I think shed light on President Clinton’s commitment to international law and the use of force. First, with the Rwandan genocide, Clinton failed to intervene in Rwanda or even treat the situation seriously. Tony Lake described the inaction of the Clinton Administration on Rwanda “truly pathetic” and Clinton himself called the episode the greatest regret of his presidency. (p. 92). The implication is that the Clinton Administration was of the view that humanitarian intervention in Rwanda would have been legitimate, whether or not it was lawful.

Second, with Iraq the Clinton Administration’s military actions had no more Security Council authorization than President Bush did in 2003. Clinton took military action numerous times against Iraq, and with his bold assertions of the Iraqi threat and his dramatic show of force Chollet and Goldgeier argue that his words and deeds could have come from George W. Bush’s playbook. (p. 179). Moreover, “the administration believed it had all the U.N. Security Council justification it needed with the resolutions already on the books.” (p. 194). The urgency of military action in Iraq stemmed in no small part from the fact that the “Clinton team became convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had every intention of developing more.” (p. 190).

Third, with Kosovo the Clinton Administration “purposely avoided seeking U.N. Security Council authorization because of opposition from Russia and China. For the Clinton team, bypassing the United Nations proved that the Security Council did not have a veto over NATO’s, and by extension America’s, actions. But for domestic opponents on the left and for many leaders abroad, this set the dangerous precedent of a lone superpower thumbing its nose at international law.” (p. 230) The military intervention in Kosovo is one of the best historical precedents for justifying the Bush Administration’s actions in Iraq.

Although international law does not feature prominently in Chollet and Goldgeier’s account of the Clinton Administration, one disturbing thread that runs through the book is that, in terms of military force, the Clinton Administration’s commitment to international law was seriously wanting. And yet the world yawned in the face of these illegal military overtures.

This leads to the interesting question: given that the Clinton Administration by and large received a free pass for its unlawful use of force, should we be surprised if the Bush Administration thought it would receive similar treatment?

I think that when historians write the book on the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq, it will be impossible to ignore the Clinton Administration’s earlier actions that set the stage. The themes are all there: (1) the United States should intervene to prevent Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction; (2) the United States should bypass the Security Council in using military force if it is political necessary to do so; and (3) the United States should accept that humanitarian intervention is a legitimate basis for military intervention, with or without Security Council authorization.

Of course, I am not equating the scale of military action between the two Administrations. But in terms of commitment to international law and the use of force, there are obvious and uncomfortable similarities.

6 Responses

  1. FWIW: In the main I agree with your conclusion and the premises on which it is based strike me as impeccable.

  2. Agree with everything except (3). Humanitarian intervention was an ex post facto justification of the war in Iraq. In other words, the play was in the playbook, but the play wasn’t executed when it should have been.

  3. Well I have to disagree a bit here.

    The one thing that the Bush administration is really good at is lying, particulary where spinning the significance of information and event is concenrned. I don’t think it matters a bit what Clinton did, for the simple reason that anything he did would be spun to look like a precedent for whatever the Bush gang wanted to do.

    Surgeons and ax-murderers both cut people for example, but it doesn’t follow that all sugeons are murderers or that ax-murderers are doing surgery for the benefit of the patient.

    But that’s exactly the sort of arguments the Bush gang uses routinely in their detainee briefs, their argumetns for “liberating” (i.e. subjugating) Iraq, etc. etc.

    As with any crime, the difference is in the intent. You can argue ‘legality” all you want, but Iraq was a rape where Kosovo was an effort to prevent a rape. It’s like arguing there’s not much difference between eating a mushroom and a toadstool.

  4. I would accept that there is illegality in both administrations actions as a matter of international law. It seems that any legitimacy for those actions comes from the willingness of other states to acquiesce in that illegality as oppose to resisting it.

    The lack of action on Rwanda, the Kosovo bombing, and bombing of Saddam were all acquiesced in by other states.

    Acquiescence in an invasion and war of the type we have in Iraq hits more at the nerve of aggressive war and so it is harder to merely acquiesce in the act to give it legitimacy. Bush efforts to put in place the Maliki government are part and parcel of seeking acquiescence to the illegal act and a search for legitimacy through the acquiescence.



  5. “were all acquiesced in by other states.”

    As was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not a country lifted a finger to stop us. Many sent troops to aid us.

    “As with any crime, the difference is in the intent. You can argue ‘legality” all you want, but Iraq was a rape where Kosovo was an effort to prevent a rape.”

    Oh come, this is some truly pathetic hair splitting, although you do come dangerously close to speaking your mind, which is to say, stating that it was wrong because Bush was the one doing it, and not Clinton. Anyone who believes, in the light of the past decade (and past year especially) that Bill Clinton is guided by a compassionate inner compass rather than his own transparent ambition has serious difficulties in judging character.

    Should President Obama launch a similar, UN-defying invasion, I’ll be in serious danger of rolling my eyes right out of my head after listening to the very same people who opposed the war in Iraq praise his actions.

  6. Matthew,

    Pathetic hair-splitting you say??

    What BS.

    As if YOU don’t understand the difference between using deadly force to stop a robbeery and using it to commit onw?

    Spare me.

    All that such accusation proves is that you think Mr, Bush’s crimes are a good idea, something you and Mr. Bush have in common with anyone who ever robbed a bank or a convenience store.

    As for you rolling the eyes out of you head, I imagine you’ll find an excuse to do that no matter what Obama does in office if he’s elected — that’z just SOP for you neo-fascists.

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