President George Bush could build an awesome multilateral coalition for going to war with Saddam Hussein, but he didn’t know the price of milk. That was the story of the 1992 presidential campaign, in which Bill Clinton sold himself to America as a candidate focused exclusively on domestic policy.
Seven years later, however, Clinton has just roasted President Bush’s party as hostages to a "new isolationism," the Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty having dealt a serious blow to the very global U.S. leadership that Bush had prized. It was a strange moment, which spoke volumes about the fate of U.S. foreign policy — and the role in it of the presidency — in the years since the Cold War.
Washington’s allies around the world looked on in horror as the Senate shot down the painstakingly negotiated centerpiece of four decades of international efforts to put an end to the live testing of nuclear weapons. Besides their immediate concern over Washington’s seeming abdication of its leadership role on nuclear nonproliferation, the international community was plainly shocked at the apparent unraveling of executive power in the U.S. After all, whom could you deal with in Washington if the legislature could so cavalierly slap down the President?
"The Senate vote makes us look bad with both allies and adversaries, weakening our position for dealing with all of them," says TIME Washington correspondent Massimo Calabresi. "It calls into question our credibility in negotiating treaties and other foreign policy initiatives, and raises doubts about whether the U.S. is capable of providing leadership." Following the CTBT defeat, the President came out swinging, telling the world that he was engaged in a titanic struggle with "isolationist" Republicans, and that he planned to prevail. That was unlikely to reassure Washington’s friends abroad; the fact that the Senate debacle occurred when partisan skirmishing created a momentum that even Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was unable to stop suggested that there was chaos in the wheelhouse of the world’s last superpower.