GOP Has a Case on Foreign Policy, But It's Not Without Flaws

Undiplomatic Dispatch: TIME.com's Tony Karon finds plenty to agree with in the GOP's critique of Clinton foreign policy. But the party of Condi Rice is also the party of Jesse Helms...

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Whether they met on MTV's "Celebrity Death Match" or at a Council on Foreign Affairs debate, Condoleezza Rice would single-handedly wipe the floor with the Clinton foreign policy tag team of Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger.

It's certainly good for the Democrats that elections aren't decided on foreign policy matters — and not only because the GOP has the formidable Condie Rice in its corner. Bill Clinton in '92 even made a selling point of the fact that his experience was in domestic, rather than foreign, policy. And after eight years of a skittish, improvisational and haphazard U.S. foreign policy unkindly called "ad hoc-racy" by its critics, Al Gore should hope the same holds true today. Then again, some of the GOP's own record and positions don't exactly reinforce its criticism of the Clinton administration.

For the record, I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat. And as a foreigner, I'm inclined to judge Washington as much by its record abroad as by its record at home. And on that score, the Republicans certainly offer a persuasive indictment of Clinton's foreign policy.

In her convention speech, Rice took a couple of sideswipes. She warned that the U.S. can't afford to become the world's 911 number — a reference to what GOP heavyweights see as the administration's inconsistent and misguided policy of "humanitarian intervention." Valid criticism, perhaps, although it's also worth remembering that the defining humanitarian debacle of the '90s — the death of 18 U.S. soldiers during a botched raid on a Somali warlord in Mogadishu —occurred in the course of a mission bequeathed by the Bush administration.

Rice also emphasized the need to work with America's allies, reflecting a real concern that Clinton-era unilateralism has alienated Washington's European NATO partners and left the Gulf War alliance in tatters. Again, a solid diagnosis of the problem, although the party that put Jesse Helms in charge of foreign policy on Capitol Hill may be ill-placed to excoriate unilateralism.

But Rice's primary concern, expressed in a Foreign Affairs essay earlier this year, is that there's no overarching intellectual framework guiding today's U.S. foreign policy. Having taken the reins just as the collapse of the Soviet Union nullified the organizing principle of postwar U.S. foreign policy, the Clinton administration failed to define the U.S. national interest and formulate the resultant strategies and priorities. Instead, Republicans charge, it's been a mishmash of Band-Aid solutions and crisis management that has often simply deferred problems while fundamental concerns have been neglected.

The White House counters with the valid point that the end of the Cold War spawned multiple crises on more fronts than any previous administration has ever had to deal with. Even then, the charge sticks — the administration has clearly lacked any guiding framework for dealing with those crises and shaping its priorities. President Clinton has, for example, spent a considerable proportion of his foreign policy energy over the past two years searching for an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But Republican critics, while supporting these efforts, are concerned that relationships far more fundamental to U.S. national interests, such as those with China and with Russia, have been allowed, through neglect, inconsistency and even opinion poll-driven judgment, to drift into dangerous waters.

On Russia, where Gore is particularly vulnerable since he personally presided over much of the relationship, Rice and others harshly criticize the administration's record. "Support for democracy and economic reform became support for Yeltsin," writes Rice. "The United States certified that reform was taking place where it was not, continuing to disburse money from the International Monetary Fund in the absence of any evidence of serious change. The curious privatization methods were hailed as economic liberalization; the looting of the country's assets by powerful people either went unnoticed or was ignored. The realities in Russia simply did not accord with the administration's script about Russian economic reform."

On the money, once again, although it's never made entirely clear how a GOP administration might have handled the situation differently given that the only viable political challenge to Yeltsin came from the communists. Rice is even more scathing on last year's Kosovo campaign, which may exemplify what Republicans complain has been a Clinton-era habit of using the military to send messages rather than fight wars, eschewing the principle of that the U.S. should avoid military action at all costs but deploy with sufficient commitment to put victory beyond doubt once the military option is exercised. Besides wreaking havoc with morale, the partial and self-limiting use of the armed forces can undermine the deterrent power of America's military might.

"The Kosovo war was conducted incompetently, in part because the administration's political goals kept shifting and in part because it was not, at the start, committed to the decisive use of military force," writes Rice. "That President Clinton was surprised at Milosevic's tenacity is, well, surprising," she adds, in a thinly veiled slap-down of Albright's strategic abilities. "Also, there must be a political game plan that will permit the withdrawal of our forces — something that is still completely absent in Kosovo."

Other Republican heavyweights have made similar observations on Iraq. In December 1998, for example, U.S. and British bombers struck Iraq for four days as punishment for Baghdad's non-compliance with U.N. arms inspections. And then they simply stopped, having achieved no more than preventing any further arms inspection on the ground in Iraq ever since.

On China, the Republicans maintain Clinton sent dangerously mixed signals, in part because of a misguided, possibly business-driven view of Beijing as a "strategic partner" rather than a competitor, and in part by skittishness fueled by domestic concerns. Thus when the embattled Chinese reformer Premier Zhu Rongji came to Washington to conclude a WTO deal in April 1999, Clinton backed off because of the domestic political fallout over nuclear espionage allegations. But sending Zhu home empty-handed not only weakened Beijing's reformers in their battle against hard-liners, it also fostered a climate of mistrust that erupted into open hostility the following month when a NATO bomber inadvertently destroyed China's embassy in Belgrade.

Rice and her colleagues make a compelling critique, and they're putting forward some pretty sound principles, guided by an ethos of caution, focus and consultation. Their starting point is the national interest, and they recommend a prudent application of power in its pursuit. And that may be a more honest framework for action than lofty humanitarian principles that can be easily made to look hypocritical when Washington is prepared to start an air war in support of the Kosovars but can't lift a finger in support of the Chechens, the Sierra Leoneans, Rwandans and others. While not precluding "humanitarian intervention," GOP thinkers say these need to be based on a sound political strategy and a deep understanding of the underlying political conflict in each situation, and with an exit strategy that doesn't leave the situation a shambles.

The cornerstone of Republican foreign policy, as ever, is a strong defense. But many of the principles enunciated by Rice and other sober GOP internationalists may be sharply challenged by the party's relentless determination to build a comprehensive missile defense system, which will dramatically increase tension with Russia and China and strain relations with Washington's European NATO partners. (Come on, guys — you know the reason they're opposed is the system's impact on the strategic balance, not because Clinton hasn't done a good job of selling it to them, as Governor Bush regularly implies.)

And before we go proclaiming the GOP victors in the foreign policy beauty contest, we ought to consider their own record. President Clinton might have pioneered a dysfunctional and dangerous cruise-missile diplomacy, but he's never matched the cynicism and pure "Dr. Strangelove" nuttiness of President Reagan's invasion of Grenada. That from the same administration that gave us Iran-Contra and shipped Stinger missiles to the likes of Osama Bin Laden back in the '80s simply because they were fighting the Soviets. And it was the Bush administration, after all, that not only stood back when it had the power to topple Saddam Hussein — an arguably necessary step to avoid the destabilizing collapse of the Iraqi state — but also condemned to death thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites by calling on them to rise up against Baghdad, and then standing back to watch Saddam slaughter them.

The post-Cold War era is indeed a messy one, and neither party is all that well placed to throw stones. The GOP wonks have had the luxury of an eight-year sabbatical from the corridors of power in which to formulate their critique. And that's left them leading the way in defining the problem.