After seven years, the big foreign policy thinkers in the Clinton administration are convinced they have come up with a big idea. Having spent the better part of a decade meandering through the world without a hint of strategy--wading compassless in and out of swamps from Somalia to Haiti to Yugoslavia--they have finally found their theme.
National Security Adviser Sandy Berger unveiled it in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last week. In true Clintonian fashion, Berger turned personal pique over the rejection of the test ban treaty into a grand idea: The Democrats are internationalists, their opponents are isolationists.
First of all, it ill behooves Democrats to call anybody isolationists. This is the party that in 1972 committed itself to "Come home, America." That cut off funds to South Vietnam. That fought bitterly to cut off aid to the Nicaraguan contras and the pro-America government of El Salvador. That mindlessly called for a nuclear freeze. That voted against the Gulf War.
They prevailed in Vietnam but thankfully were defeated on everything else. The contras were kept alive, forcing the Sandinistas to agree to free elections. Nicaragua is now a democracy.
El Salvador was supported against communist guerrillas. It, too, is now a democracy.
President Reagan faced down the freeze and succeeded in getting Soviet withdrawal of their SS-20 nukes from Europe, the abolition of multiwarhead missiles, and the first nuclear arms reduction in history.
And the Gulf War was fought, preventing Saddam from becoming the nuclear-armed hegemon of the Persian Gulf.
"The internationalist consensus that prevailed in this country for more than 50 years," claimed Berger, "increasingly is being challenged by a new isolationism, heard and felt particularly in the Congress."
Internationalist consensus? For the last 20 years of the Cold War, after the Democrats lost their nerve over Vietnam, there was no internationalist consensus. Internationalism was the property of the Republican Party and of a few brave Democratic dissidents led by Sen. Henry Jackson--who were utterly shut out of power when the Democrats won the White House.
Berger's revisionism is not restricted to the Reagan and Bush years. He can't seem to remember the Clinton years either. He says of the Republicans, that "since the Cold War ended, the proponents of this [isolationist] vision have been nostalgic for the good old days when friends were friends and enemies were enemies."
Cold War nostalgia? It was Bill Clinton who early in his presidency said laughingly, "Gosh, I miss the Cold War." Then seriously, "We had an intellectually coherent thing. The American people knew what the rules were."
What exactly is the vision that Berger has to offer? What does the Clinton foreign policy stand for?
Engagement. Hence the speech's title, "American Power--Hegemony, Isolation or Engagement." Or as he spelled it out: "To keep America engaged in a way that will benefit our people and all people."
Has there ever been a more mushy, meaningless choice of strategy? Engagement can mean anything. It can mean engagement as a supplicant, as a competitor, as an ally, as an adversary, as a neutral arbiter. Wake up on a Wednesday and pick your meaning.
The very emptiness of the term captures perfectly the essence of Clinton foreign policy. It is glorified ad hocism.
It lurches from one civil war to another with no coherent logic and with little regard for American national interests--finally proclaiming, while doing a victory jig over Kosovo, a Clinton Doctrine pledging America to stop ethnic cleansing anywhere.
It lurches from one multilateral treaty to another--from the Chemical Weapons Convention that even its proponents admit is unverifiable to a test ban treaty that is not just unverifiable but disarming--in the belief that American security can be founded on promises and paper.
If there is a thread connecting these meanderings, it is a woolly utopianism that turns a genuinely felt humanitarianism and a near-mystical belief in the power of parchment into the foreign policy of a superpower.
The choice of engagement as the motif of Clinton foreign policy is a self-confession of confusion. Of course we are engaged in the world. The question is: What kind of engagement?
Engagement that relies on the fictional "international community," the powerless United Nations or the recalcitrant Security Council (where governments hostile to our interests can veto us at will) to legitimize American action? Or engagement guided by American national interests and security needs?
Engagement that squanders American power and treasure on peacekeeping? Or engagement that concentrates our finite resources on potential warfighting in vital areas such as the Persian Gulf, the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait?
Berger cannot seem to tell the difference between isolationism and realism. Which is the fundamental reason for the rudderless mess that is Clinton foreign policy.