Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2000

Bill Clinton, like most presidents in their final months in office, wants to be remembered as a peacemaker. His well-orchestrated efforts to improve relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran underline the White House's determination to present an image of the president that makes impeachment a minor blip in his successful eight years as president.

Clinton takes a place beside presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush, all of whom yearned to leave a legacy as peacemaker.

Consider Dwight Eisenhower who in 1960 planned a final summit meeting in Moscow to cap off his five year effort to promote detente in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. His hopes were dashed when Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and Nikita Khrushchev exploited the issue to embarrass the president. The summit was abruptly canceled.

Lyndon Johnson decided in 1968 not to seek a second term and then de-escalated the war in Vietnam in an effort to achieve a peace agreement with North Vietnam and enhance his reputation among a war-divided American public. He failed because Hanoi was determined to win a decisive victory in South Vietnam, not a negotiated settlement.

Richard Nixon could claim several remarkable foreign policy successes in his first term, including the opening of relations with China and a strategic arms treaty (SALT) with Moscow. But the Watergate impeachment in his second term brought him disgrace. In his last months in office, Nixon flew off to Moscow for a final summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in an attempt to salvage his image. Jimmy Carter hoped that success in achieving the 1979 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt would ensure his reelection in 1980. Although he lost to Ronald Reagan, his reputation as a peacemaker became part of the Carter legacy.

Ronald Reagan, like Richard Nixon, was reelected to a second term, but he too was hit by scandal during his second term, on the Iran-Contra affair. Still, Reagan's achievement in bringing an end to the Cold War and good relations with Moscow secured his role as peacemaker.

George Bush and his advisers assumed in 1992 that his hugely popular victory in the Persian Gulf war against Iraq would ensure reelection in 1992. By election time, however, the public was less interested in foreign policy than in the domestic economic situation. Earlier Bill Clinton had criticized Bush for spending too much of his time on foreign policy.

Clinton today seems to be reasonably successful in four major foreign policy areas: relations with China, and with Russia, defusing tensions in Korea, and dealing with the new progressive leadership in Iran. On two other issues, however, an Arab-Israeli peace agreement and reconciliation in Kosovo, his record remains clouded.

+ China. Clinton deserves credit for winning congressional approval for granting China normal trading relations (PNTR) and its admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Remarkably, the Democratic leadership in Congress and the AFL-CIO were adamantly opposed and Clinton was obliged to rely on congressional Republicans to provide the needed votes for passage. This major foreign policy achievement will help Clinton's legacy.

+ Russia. Similarly, his recent summit meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin and the discussion on strategic missile defense is a breakthrough that Clinton's successor will build on. During his presidency Clinton strongly encouraged political forces within Russia that want to build democracy, a market economy, and good relations with the West. It is too early to know if Putin will pursue those policies.

+ Korea. The first meeting ever between North and South Korean leaders results from persistence in the view by the White House that patience and economic aid will eventually bring change in Pyongyang and relaxation of tensions with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Critics say North Korea engages in "extorion" to obtain aid. However, reduced tensions could lead to a reduction in the size of U.S. military forces in South Korea, currently about 37,000.

+ Iran. Recent elections reinforced a moderating trend in Iranian politics and has led to the partial lifting of U.S. sanctions. Hard-line clerics still control the police and the justice system, however, and are vehemently hostile to the United States. More time is needed to know whether real change is occurring in Tehran, but a start has been made during Clinton's presidency.

+ Arab-Israeli peace. Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the most important foreign policy objective for the administration before it leaves office. A September target date is set for getting a draft agreement on the final status of the West Bank territories, and the future of Jerusalem.

If Clinton were able to bring off a Carter-like Camp David peace accord between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak before leaving office, historians would give this a top billing in assessing his legacy. But the prospects for success this year are not bright. The recent death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad adds another factor contributing to further delay.

+ Kosovo. This province of Serbia is a negative factor in the Clinton foreign policy legacy. Peace is no nearer today than it was in 1999, before Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began his ethnic cleansing campaign of Kosovo's rebellious Albanian population.

The Washington Post used this heading for an appraisal of the situation by its correspondent, Jeffrey Smith (June 12): "A Year After the war, Kosovo Killing Goes On." Reporting that "ethnic hatreds show no sign of easing," the story suggested that no solution is in sight that would accomplish what President Clinton claimed was the U.S. objective in Kosovo: to bring peace and reconciliation to that battered land.

My assessment of Clinton's foreign policy is that he probably will get above average marks, even though a Middle East peace settlement is not likely this year. If Ehud Barak survives the political turmoil in Israel and Yasser Arafat keeps a lid on Palestinian violence in the West Bank territories, this will be an achievement that either a president Bush or Gore could build on. If renewed violence occurs, Clinton will be criticized for putting too much pressure on Israel.

Kosovo will not wait. If the killing of Serbs by Kosovo Albanians continues, Milosevic may decide to challenge NATO by sending his police into Serb-populated areas, claiming that "we must protect our people because NATO cannot." Russia and China, as they did a year ago, will oppose any renewed NATO bombing of Serbia. The Europeans, especially Italy and Germany, do not want a resumption of the war. Consequently, NATO must assert greater control in Kosovo, particularly over the armed Kosovo Liberation Army. But Congress has expressed opposition to committing additional U.S. forces, or economic outlays, for Kosovo.

The next president will need to deal with the Kosovo tragedy on an urgent basis, as it is an issue that could drive a wedge between the United States and Russia as well as China, and potentially split the NATO Alliance. On this, Clinton's record in foreign policy remains a minus.

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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