The presidential debates this year were a failure by the standard we use to measure our public entertainments: their ratings were abysmally low. It was not really the candidates' fault. Boredom with elections is one of the luxuries of our time. Not only have long prosperity and a seemingly unthreatened peace lulled us into political somnolence; many people believe that the government in general and the president in particular have had nothing to do with America's good fortune.
Technology alone has supposedly given us the new economy, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has seemingly removed the perils of war. So why pay close attention to what the candidates say?
That sense of a world so secure that neither major-party candidate will endanger it may explain the near-total lack of interest this year in matters of war and peace. Those of us who are old enough may remember this as a subject that once got Americans stirred up. When Hubert Humphrey was vice president and running to succeed Lyndon Johnson, his misfortune was that Johnson's foreign policy--the Vietnam War--was a disaster. Al Gore has had the opposite problem: Bill Clinton's foreign policy has succeeded so well that Americans take its success for granted. The intervention in Kosovo carried considerable risks, but it ended the genocidal Serbian attack on the Kosovars that had sent them fleeing across their borders and threatened to destabilize the region. And now, not much more than a year later, Slobodan Milosevic himself has fallen, fully vindicating the original intervention, the sanctions against Serbia, and U.S. and NATO peace-keeping in the Balkans.
You might think that Clinton and Gore would get some public credit for the peaceful revolution in Serbia, but this would require qualities of memory, attention, and causal reasoning that are apparently unreasonable to expect of commentators, much less of adversaries in an election. Indeed, the cheering had scarcely faded from the streets of Belgrade when Bush and his advisers were saying that America should pull back from peace-keeping and refocus the military on its traditional war-fighting mission.
From the beginning, the Clinton administration has faced intense criticism that it was confusing foreign policy with "social work" by emphasizing commitments to human rights and democracy. Supposedly, Clinton himself was interested only in domestic policy and had surrounded himself with mediocrities in foreign affairs, and we were in for another round of naïve, Wilsonian idealism. At a private gathering early in the Clinton presidency, I listened to Zbigniew Brzezinski pour contempt on Clinton and the foreign-policy team that he had gathered around him. Brzezinski had been Jimmy Carter's national security adviser--he had reason to know about fiascoes abroad--but the people who were junior to him in those days have turned out to enjoy far more success running foreign policy than he did.
As the Clinton era comes to a close, it is time to give the president the respect in foreign affairs that he has earned. The breakdown of peace in the Mideast is a reminder that not every initiative of the administration has come to a successful conclusion, but Clinton can scarcely be faulted for his persistence as a peacemaker there. From Northern Ireland to North Korea, his administration has made extraordinary breakthroughs, even if the work is unfinished. Precisely because it required hard moral and political choices, Kosovo was Clinton's finest hour. In the 1960s, liberals thought there was reason for shame about America's role in the world. There was then, but there is reason for pride now.
Bush has implicitly recognized Clinton's success in foreign affairs by finding so few specific decisions to criticize. In the second presidential debate, asked specifically which foreign involvements of the past decade he would have avoided, Bush could name only one: Haiti. Since he also said that Africa was the one region in the world low in his priorities, this left the distinct impression that countries with black populations would likely be safe from his help. Although Bush's discussion of national security was occasionally incoherent, it was clear enough from his choice of code words that he favors a more constricted view of America's national interest than Clinton has held. If oil supplies or sea-lanes were threatened, we can be certain that Bush would respond with force. But if the issue were more diffuse concerns about democracy and human rights--if America might get involved, God forbid, in "nation-building"--that kind of intervention would likely cross the line that Bush seems to be drawing.
After the third debate, Bush's advisers announced, as a specific example of his plans to reduce the "overextension" of our forces, that Bush would withdraw Americans from peace-keeping in the Balkans. In fact, the U.S. force in Bosnia and Kosovo is already down to 11,400 out of 65,000 troops supplied by NATO overall. Pulling out these peace-keepers would have only a small impact on the U.S. military (they represent just one-tenth of the number of American soldiers stationed in Europe), but it might have a big symbolic effect in an area that is still far from stable.
The cutback in peace-keeping goes hand in hand with Bush's talk about rebuilding the military--as if we did not already have force at our disposal many times greater than any potential adversary's. No doubt there are a lot of voters who like the idea of an old-fashioned, virile policy toward the world that straightforwardly emphasizes military defense of vital security interests, but they may like it a lot less if we end up fighting wars we could have prevented. America certainly ought to be strong, but an America that is heavily armed and shortsighted could make the world not safer but more dangerous. ¤