The Clinton Administration and International Law
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.