Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Clinton 'doctrine:' Is it substance or spin?

President outlines new tenet on when to intervene abroad, but critics

For a president to get the word "doctrine" attached to his name, he's got to do something big, something lasting, in the area of foreign affairs.

Remember the Truman Doctrine? That was the cold war strategy to contain communism. The Monroe Doctrine? That was the 1823 policy to keep Europe out of the Americas, a guideline that influenced presidents into this century.

About these ads

Now, in the aftermath of Kosovo, there's the "Clinton doctrine." As recently explained by the president, the international community should stop ethnic cleansing and genocide whether it's within, or beyond, a country's borders. "If the world community has the power to stop it," it should, he said.

But does this post-cold-war tenet have staying power? Will it influence future leaders? Or is it, as former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta worries, just another "message of the day" churned out by the White House spin machine?

According to an administration official, the White House plans to flesh out the concept beyond the paragraph-sized sound bite of a June 20 television interview with CNN. Over the next couple weeks, the National Security Council staff will work on the subject, which the president will then likely amplify in a speech.

What's distinctive about Clinton's principle is that, for the first time, a president is saying "genocide is in and of itself a national interest where we should act," the administration official says.

In framing the issue this way, the president is going well beyond the traditional interpretations of "national interest" as security or economic stakes.

President Bush, for instance, made the case that the Gulf War was necessary because of its economic threat to oil supplies. Clinton tried to make a similar case with Kosovo, referring to America's diplomatic and economic ties with Europe.

But it was a stretch for him to connect a tiny Yugoslav province unknown to many Americans with the danger it posed to our relationship with Europe.

About these ads

Whether the president's more altruistic concept of national interest could influence future leaders, or even the next presidential election, depends to a certain extent on its soundness.

From what's been said so far, there's no "meat on the bones" of this doctrine, says Mr. Panetta. It raises the question: Of all the hot spots in the world, how do you determine which ones rate intervention?

That question is intimately tied to public opinion, one determinant of any new doctrine's staying power. According to polling by the Pew Research Center here, 60 percent of Americans believe the US has a moral obligation to do something about genocide, no matter where it occurs.

"There's a general, but not an overwhelming agreement, that we have a moral obligation. But there's no consensus as to how much we're willing to sacrifice for it," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center.

In other words, the degree of public support would depend on the specifics of the situation - a shifting foundation on which to build a broad new policy.

ADDITIONALLY, there's the question of whether any future president would follow such a doctrine. Unless there's a crisis, history shows foreign policy doesn't win elections, and no candidates, at least not Republicans, are yet running around embracing Clinton's new standard.

Indeed, both Republicans in Congress and some GOP presidential hopefuls were sharply divided over the NATO air campaign.

Nor has Clinton got the traditional bounce in job-approval ratings that usually follows a successful military venture - a reflection of Americans' ambivalence toward the war.

And even while the commander in chief met grateful refugees last week, some Kosovars complain that the atrocities could have ended sooner if NATO had only attacked with full force.

Still, after the numerous military interventions of the Clinton administration, and especially on the heels of Kosovo, a Clinton doctrine should at least help shape the debate among presidential contenders on when it is appropriate to use force abroad.

"Somehow, somebody is going to have to define where we are in the post-cold-war world," says independent pollster John Zogby.

REPUBLICANS would just as soon not have it be Clinton.

"Republicans have to get [their message] out quickly, and not let the president and his new doctrine dominate," says one Republican operative who asked not to be named.

Panetta, a critic of Clinton's crisis-driven approach to military interventions, says the presidential hopefuls won't be able to avoid the topic. "It will be asked at every candidates' forum," he says.

And it should be asked, adds Panetta, because "the Kosovos of the world are probably the kind of challenges we're going to have to face over and over again."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.