BUBBA DUBYA? A CURIOUSLY CLINTONIAN TURN
IN UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY
By Dr. Michael Rubin
Unanimously, U.S. Senators and Congressmen gave President Bush a standing ovation.
Now, faced with falling poll numbers, and wanting the affirmation of the foreign policy elite here and abroad -- from the Quai d'Orsay to Auswärtiges Amt and Turtle Bay -- the President seems to have reversed course. He still speaks about democracy and the war against terror, but increasingly his administration charts the path of least resistance and paper compromise so dominant during the Clinton years. This may please diplomats, but it does not ensure U.S. national security. It's déjà vu all over again in the White House.
Her announcement delighted European diplomats and validated former Clinton administration officials. An April 26, 2006, statement signed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and five European former foreign ministers had advised: "We believe that the Bush administration should pursue a policy it has shunned for many years: attempt to negotiate directly with Iranian leaders about their nuclear program." Sandy Berger, Clinton's second-term National Security Adviser, applauded the move: "[Rice] has done a very effective job in the last year and a half of consolidating foreign policy back in the State Department." To Albright and Berger, 1990s-style diplomacy, with its emphasis on multilateralism and consensus over substance, is an end in itself.
In the wake of Rice's announcement, senior U.S. diplomats and European officials speaking on background outlined the proposed carrots and sticks: If Tehran promises to suspend uranium enrichment, sits down and talks, it will receive light water nuclear reactors. If Tehran refuses to talk, Europe, Russia, and perhaps even China will discuss sanctions at the UN Security Council. There is no consensus about what these sanctions would constitute, nor is there a timeline. Just two days after Rice's concession, her Russian counterpart hinted at just how flaccid the proposed sticks were. Speaking in Vienna, Sergei Lavrov commented: "I can say unambiguously that all the agreements from yesterday's meetings rule out in any circumstances the use of military force."
Precedent gives little ground for optimism. What Bush offered Tehran mirrors what Clinton gave Pyongyang. On October 21, 1994, Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci signed the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. In exchange for a freeze of the Stalinist dictatorship's nuclear program, Washington offered to supply Pyongyang with two light water nuclear reactors and a basket of additional incentives. Clinton explained:
But North Korea did not freeze its nuclear program, and the world did not become safer. In 1998, Pyongyang signaled its renewed belligerence when it launched a nuclear-capable Taepodong-1 missile over Japan. It continued to enrich uranium and later withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Central Intelligence Agency now estimates North Korea has a couple of bombs; the Stalinist state claims to have more. The idea that Clinton's deal was a success is revisionist nonsense. It is a model only for the triumph of appearance over substance. Kim Jong Il played Clinton; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is playing Bush.
On August 7, 1998, Al-Qa'ida attacked the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Thirteen days later, Clinton ordered a retaliatory missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and on Zhawar Kili, a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. International reaction was tepid at best. While British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by Clinton, most European allies were lukewarm. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed "concern" and the Kremlin denounced U.S. actions.
Clinton valued international affirmation. The symbolic Tomahawk strike complete, he sought to assuage allies with renewed commitment to international multilateral diplomacy. Both Clinton and the Taliban reverted to business as usual. Sensing weakness, Al-Qa'ida accelerated its training program. In March, 2000, I spent three weeks in the Taliban's Afghanistan. In Kabul, shopkeepers described meeting Arabs and Filipinos training for Jihad. While the Taliban denied hosting terror training camps, residents near Rishkhor, a camp just a few kilometers from Kabul, spoke of continued activity. Eighteen months later, graduates from Afghan camps like these brought down the World Trade Center.
Today, the location is different, but the White House's desire to turn a blind eye is the same. In the 1990s, Afghanistan was a forgotten backwater; this decade, it is Somalia. Terrorists love a vacuum. On June 5, 2006, the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group affiliated with Al-Qa'ida, seized Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. Both journalists and policymakers were underwhelmed. Perhaps, some mused, this radical Islamist gang could restore order. Reporting was similarly blasé when the Taliban seized Kabul just under a decade ago.
The Islamic Courts Union and the terrorist threat they pose did not materialize out of thin air; rather, they are a product of Bush administration neglect. Somalis living in Mogadishu speak of terrorist training camps established in the Lower Juba region, along the Kenyan border. According to Somali officials, the camps are not indigenous, but are run by Palestinians and Syrians. Senior U.S. military officials acknowledge the growing Al-Qa'ida presence, but say they are forbidden to intervene. Not only has the Bush administration long nixed U.S. military action against terror training camps, but now also forbids the U.S. military from filling the vacuum in still stable regions of the country, such as Somaliland and Puntland.
As the Bush administration wishes the problem away, rich Saudi and Persian Gulf financiers work to consolidate the region as a Jihadist base. While Clinton did little to stop the capital flow from Gulf Arab sheikhs into the Taliban's Afghanistan, today the Bush team ignores the almost daily flights from Dubai to the Somali airfield at Baledogle, about 70 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Here, chartered jets bring men and materiel for Al-Qa'ida affiliate Al-Ittihad al-Islami and the Taliban-like Islamic Courts Union, which is slowly consolidating its control over Mogadishu.
He trusted U.S. security to the goodwill of international organizations. The intellectual elite applauded, even as Saddam Hussein, for example, exploited the United Nations for financial gain, the European Union funded Palestinian terrorists, and Iran developed secret nuclear facilities under the nose of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
He let public opinion polls determine national security. After a disastrous October 3, 1993, raid in Mogadishu, he ordered U.S. troops to evacuate the country, mission incomplete, a key factor, Osama bin Ladin later said, in bolstering Al-Qa'ida's confidence.
Bush's recent about-face also seems driven more by public relations than strategy. Bush administration figures once said they would not replicate Clinton's mistakes. On March 18, 2004, Rice told CNN interviewer John King that a proper U.S. response to 9-11 was "an American strategy that is bold and decisive and takes the fight to [the terrorists]" and not Clinton's laid-back, law-enforcement approach that "led to September 11." Four days later, Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated the message and then, on March 23, 2004, so did U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Today, the Bush administration is in full retreat from that high ground. The Iranian President can threaten war, but, if nuclear reactors are what it takes to get the United Nations to promise to consider whether to discuss talking about the possibility of taking action, then Bush is willing to agree. Meanwhile, authorities in Turkey complain that Central Intelligence Agency officers meet with representatives from Kurdish terrorist groups, former CIA officers meet with Hezbollah, and the State Department plays a shell game with Hamas, withholding money on one hand, but dispensing the same funds through the United Nations Refugee Works Administration with the other. Rice now even hints at scaling back U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court. Like Clinton before him, Bush is being tempted by the siren song of international peer affirmation.
During his September 20, 2001, speech before the joint session of Congress, Bush declared, "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail." Increasingly, though, the administration seems to be tiring and faltering. And, if it retreats to the policies that led to 9-11, it will fail.
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Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Michael Rubin was originally published in the Weekly Standard, June 19, 2006, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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