Bill Clinton in the World

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Mike Zielinski

PRESIDENT-ELECT BILL Clinton’s first official statement stressed the continuity of U.S. foreign policy. Is this one area where he should be taken at his word? Are Bill Clinton and George Bush foreign policy twins separated at birth, or will a Democratic administration distinguish itself from Republican policies steeped in militarism and interventionism?

The end of the Cold War has left the established political parties with little to differ over when it comes to foreign policy. The Republicans had to travel back twenty years to Clinton’s activities opposing the war and side-stepping the draft to launch a foreign policy attack on the Democratic nominee. With everyone desiring a world safe for corporate investment, the differences between Clinton and Bush may be more tactical than strategic in formulating foreign policy.

Yet the transition from Bush to Clinton occurs not in a stable and peaceful climate, but rather in the most fluid international situation since 1945. While the Soviet Union no longer provides a political-military counterweight to U.S. power, the collapse of the Soviet bloc has produced growing ethnic strife, and the restructuring of the global economy presents Washington with intensified economic challenges from Europe and Japan.

George Bush was turned out of office for his failure to pull the U.S. economy out of a recession that borders on depression in some regions. The no-confidence vote on Bush’s management of the economy issued from corporate board rooms as much as community centers.

Clinton’s international actions will be driven by a geo-economic perspective focused on foreign challenges to U.S. economic competitiveness rather than Reagan-Bush’s geo-political emphasis on military measures to counter potential adversaries. The next administration will avoid the confrontational stance of the `80s, which elevated every regional conflict into a crucial contest in the struggle with the Evil Empire.

Clinton’s mandate from corporate managers calls for restoring the global competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Costly and divisive wars clash with this mission and need to be avoided for pragmatic reasons, not because there is a sudden ideological shift away from intervention. U.S. elites are staking their claim on a new world order with a three-prong attack, targeting the domestic working class, rival capitalist nations, and the Third World. Clinton’s foreign policy will be at the service of this economic agenda.

Within twenty-four hours of victory Clinton declared he would “focus like a laser beam on this economy” and that “foreign policy will come into play in part as it affects the economy.” Clinton defines national security in terms of economic health. On the campaign trail he stressed that his “first foreign policy priority will be to restore America’s economic vitality.”

A World of Disorder and Free Trade

While Clinton prefers to concentrate on measures to reactivate the domestic economy, international conflicts may prove to be a spoiler. The so-called new world order, like “low-intensity” conflict, is a misnomer. The policies of the industrialized nations are in fact producing a growing disorder rooted in old orders of exploitation. As the chasm separating the haves from the have nots widens, social unrest is on the rise.

Future challenges to the status quo may not resemble the national liberation movements of the past thirty years, but explosions of misery are rocking the Third World, from food riots in Caracas to uprisings sparked by police violence in South Central L.A. Other foreign policy crises–from nuclear proliferation spurred by western technology transfers to ethnic Armageddons–may force themselves onto the new administration’s agenda.

One pressing economic issue with foreign policy ramifications is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the potential creation of a hemispheric free enterprise zone stretching from Argentina to the Yukon.

Corporate America seeks to revive its fortunes by driving down wages on a global scale, and the NAFTA is a crucial component of this strategy. A neo-liberal noose is tightening around Latin America, but the same strings are being pulled in the United States. Neo-liberal policies in Latin America–which include auctioning off state industries to the private sector, eliminating subsidies for food and public transportation, and union-busting–have direct counterparts in the United States, from the establishment of “enterprise zones” in urban ghettoes to the privatization of everything from education to trash collection.

Clinton may not pursue the privatization mania with the same fervor as the Republicans, encouraging some role for the state in mitigating the worst excesses of structural adjustment. But he accepts the framework of neo-liberalism, with free trade a mechanism for strengthening capital’s grip on labor. His call for a new Democratic Party, which stresses welfare reform and individual responsibility, forms an ideological continuum with the neo-liberal assault pounding the poor in Latin America.

NAFTA will place U.S. workers in direct competition with workers in Mexico’s vastly lower wage society. Rather than create higher wage jobs in both societies, as NAFTA proponents claim, capital will gravitate to where costs are lowest, producing pared down benefits, reduced wages, and diminished environmental and safety standards. Capital will roam the hemisphere freely, settling where regulations and organized labor are weakest, while borders will remain closed for workers attempting to earn a higher wage.

Clinton’s version of this pro-business agenda calls for improving domestic factors of production, including refurbishing infrastructure and expanding education and training programs. The goal is to foster market-based economic growth; any social equity will be a subsidiary spin-off industry, not the heart of the matter. The bottom line is not redistribution but shoring up production.

Clinton’s tenure as governor of Arkansas provides a preview of these policies in practice. He presided over a right-to- work state which enabled industry to use non-union labor as a club for driving down wages and demands in the more unionized northern zones of the United States. This north-south dichotomy within the United States will be magnified and extended to the southern regions of the western hemisphere.

Clinton straddled an international house of waffles approach to the NAFTA during the campaign. When seeking to demonstrate his independence from “special interests”–i.e. any group which doesn’t embrace a corporate agenda–Clinton advocated the NAFTA. Once the nomination was locked up, he back-pedaled to shore up the party’s traditional base in the labor movement.

While Clinton may have quibbled with Bush over the details of the NAFTA, he’s a neo-liberal at heart. He holds Bush’s view that free trade is essential as a means of opening up Latin American economies to U.S. corporate control, and guaranteeing this hemisphere will be a source of cheap labor for U.S. manufacturing interests. A regional trading bloc dominated by U.S. capital will provide Washington with a secure base from which to wage economic warfare with Europe and Japan.

New Official Enemies

With Clinton’s emphasis on reviving the United States’ ability to compete in the global economy, the interventions and proxy wars of the Reagan-Bush era may recede initially, with military adventurism seen as an unnecessary distraction from achieving domestic economic goals. At the same time, Clinton wants it both ways. Like Bush, he’s a staunch advocate of maintaining the capacity to project U.S. military power in the Third World. His Pentagon budget calls for expanded expenditures on conventional weapons systems including further development of the high-tech weaponry brought to bear on Iraq.

With the Soviet bear gone the way of the dodo, the U.S. military is compiling a new enemies list. A Clinton administration will continue to orient U.S. military doctrine away from high-intensity conflicts involving nuclear weapons and toward rapid deployment forces which can intervene in the Third World. According to Clinton, the United States needs to shift “from a force designed to win the Cold War to one better equipped to respond rapidly to regional flareups.”

While Bush advocated continued funding for star wars programs, Clinton proposes creating a more mobile military force which can be utilized for intervention in the Third World. In his own words:

“Our new military force must be more mobile, because the world will not simply be one of fixed flash points. We need the additional sealift that the Bush administration refused for so long to build. We also need the capabilities of the C-17 airlifter, which can fly long distances and then land on short distances close to the front.”

Peace Dividend–Forget It

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), with Clinton as its standard bearer, rejects efforts to scale back military spending. Both parties have called for gradual cuts in defense spending over the next five years. The difference between Clinton and Bush’s proposed Pentagon budgets amounts to a statistically insignificant five percent.

Clinton is on record as opposing a big domestic return on the peace dividend. This past August he spoke out against “some in my party who see defense cuts largely as a piggy bank to fund their domestic wish lists”–a speech delivered in Los Angeles of all places. These speeches, regrettably, hardly reveal Clinton as the unilateral disarmament peace-nik of Republican caricature.

Congressman Les Aspin (D-WI), frequently mentioned as a potential Defense Secretary, has developed a Democratic approach to military preparedness which differs only marginally from Bush’s Pentagon plans. Aspin views the active use of military might as a key component of Democratic foreign policy, floating the idea of selective air strikes aimed at Serbia’s capital.

Aspin is circulating a series of papers outlining possible defense postures for the future, emphasizing a reduction in the size of the Pentagon’s “base force,” while adhering to the same strategic focus championed by outgoing Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. Aspin advocates force levels which will allow the United States to engage in two simultaneous major engagements, along the lines of the Gulf War or action in Korea, while leaving the country prepared to deal with a smaller contingency like the invasion of Panama. Aspin emphasized growing instability in the Third World and the need to maintain a military able to confront “regional aggressors” like Syria, Korea, or Libya.

Aspin would leave in place a sufficiently large force to rotate U.S. units in the event of a protracted war. The main difference between Aspin’s plan and those drawn by a Bush Defense Department center around the size of U.S. defense forces rather than their mission. The Bush administration has established U.S. force levels at 1.6 million men and women, while Aspin talks of deploying 200,000 fewer military personnel, with European-based forces accounting for the bulk of the cutback.

On the Third Hand …

In forecasting a Clinton foreign policy, however, there is a need for caution. He has no track record to base judgements on, nor did many foreign policy specifics emerge from a campaign which hinged on the state of the domestic economy. His foreign policy advisors–like his campaign, and like the Democratic Party itself–span the spectrum from liberal to conservative with clear preferences for the center-right.

What regions of the world will a Clinton administration focus on? The Third World will attract sustained attention only if a crisis threatens to spin out of control. Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador, regional conflicts fueled by U.S. intervention in the `80s, are likely to be placed on a back burner despite reactionary threats to the fragile peace which prevails in these areas. The Middle East and ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet bloc will absorb most of the Administration’s foreign policy energies, along with initiatives aimed at states Washington does not approve of such as North Korea and Iraq.

During one of the half dozen speeches Clinton devoted to international affairs he declared, “I have agreed with President Bush on a number of foreign policy issues….” Where Clinton did vent foreign policy differences he moved to the right of Bush more often than not.

Clinton has offered consistent support to Israel, speaking out forcefully in favor of loan guarantees. He continues to trumpet his support for the Gulf War and has blasted the Bush Administration for ending the blood-letting too soon. Clinton was rhetorically critical of George Bush for not doing more to support Boris Yeltsin’s capitalist restoration in Russia and called on the United States to consider playing a military role in the Balkans, a position later accepted by the White House.

Like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton will wrap his foreign policy in a mantle of human rights. But, shades of Jimmy Carter, it will not be the overriding factor in conducting foreign policy. The word “democracy” will also serve as a Democratic buzz word in the same way that “free enterprise” formed a mantra for the Republicans. Clinton advisors drawn from the ranks of the DLC will define democracy as maintaining the prevailing social order.

The Carter years offer some guide to Clinton’s probable approach, keeping in mind the sea change which has broken over global politics. Carter began his term with sweeping pronouncements on human rights, matching action to words in some circumstances. While attempting to create a political alternative to a Sandinista seizure of power, Carter refrained from military intervention on behalf of Somoza. Washington did work to isolate the Pinochet regime in Chile and in general set a tone which gave encouragement to forces seeking change in the Third World.

The second half of the Carter presidency foreshadowed the Reagan years, including the beginnings of a military buildup that mushroomed under the Republicans, cuts in social programs, and confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Carter’s policy toward El Salvador illustrates the tack Clinton might adopt in similar circumstances. Following the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution, Carter opted to arm Central America’s militaries in order to head off any replays of the Sandinista experience. Washington began supplying El Salvador with military aid and anti-riot equipment in 1979, briefly suspending U.S. assistance when four U.S. church women were raped and murdered by the National Guard in late 1980. As the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) threatened to ignite a “final offensive” in the early days of 1981, Carter opened the floodgates of U.S. aid to prevent the FMLN from toppling the junta.

On his first post-election visit to Washington, Clinton distanced himself from some of the human rights rhetoric of the campaign. The president-elect backed away from campaign pledges to crackdown on the perpetrators of the Tiananmen Square bloodbath, declaring “we have a big stake in not isolating China.” Candidate Clinton thundered against the Bush policy of forcibly turning back Haitian refugees escaping military rule. President Clinton enunciated the need to maintain a distinction between political and economic refugees so as not to “promote mass migration.”

Proving We’re Tough

Clinton’s foreign policy team draws on a combination of Carter-era retreads and neo-liberals from the Democratic Leadership Council. His congressional advisors come from the conservative side, including hawkish senators Dave McCurdy (D-OK) and Sam Nunn (D-GA).

McCurdy hinted at possible action against Saddam Hussein in the early days of the next administration in order to demonstrate that Clinton is a “new Democrat” not reluctant to use force. McCurdy likened military action against Saddam Hussein as the new administration’s equivalent of “Ronald Reagan’s PATCO” the air traffic controllers’ union dismantled by Reagan at the beginning of his presidency.

Similar to the Carter years, a Clinton White House may find itself in a tug of war between foreign policy conservatives and liberals. His campaign entourage includes Carter appointees who sided with the more dovish Cyrus Vance in his battles with the hard-line Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as DLC figures more eager to draw a line in defense of U.S. imperial aspirations.

Clinton is likely to draw up a somewhat different enemies list than Bush. In the Middle East he is likely to downgrade relations with Syria as part of his pro-Israel tilt.

A country which may feel more of a human rights lash from a Clinton administration is South Africa. Clinton met with Nelson Mandela when the ANC leader’s visit to New York coincided with the Democratic convention, and Mandela spoke with the president-elect just forty-eight hours after the Democratic victory. The United States may apply some diplomatic pressures for a faster move towards majority rule and may not be as quick to abandon sanctions as the Republicans.

One of the biggest losers in the U.S. elections is Cuba. Clinton has embraced the Cuban Democracy Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Robert Torrecelli (D-NJ), tightening the trade embargo and penalizing third countries for trade with Cuba.

Clinton’s campaign strategy called for him to court the ultra-right Cuban American Foundation in a bid to wrest Florida from the Republican column. To a great extent he succeeded. The Democrat’s anti-Castro trhetoric helped him come close to winning Florida. He captured twenty-five percent of the Cuban American vote in a state where no previous Democrat has come close to breaking out of single figures.

Clinton netted $125,000 in a single appearance before the Cuban American Foundation, and Jorge Mas Canosa, its venom-spewing leader, has spoken warmly of the prospects for a Clinton administration despite Mas Canosa’s historic ties to the Republicans. In his nomination acceptance speech Clinton pledged U.S. support for ending Fidel Castro’s “dictatorship.” At the same time, the nations of Latin America see the Torrecelli bill as an affront to their sovereignty and are not ready to endorse a more hard-line U.S. approach. Clinton’s desire to further economic relations with Latin America may serve as some brake on any abrupt U.S. action against Cuba.

What of Central America, subjected to so much sound and fury from Washington during the 1980s? Central America does not appear to be of major significance to the Clinton camp. The region is unlikely to command much attention unless the fragile peace which reigns in Nicaragua and El Salvador re-ignites in full scale civil war.

Political, not military, intervention will be the order of the day for Central America. Both Nicaragua and El Salvador face crucial elections during Clinton’s term of office, and the president-elect has pledged to quadruple the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy. NED played an important part in aiding anti-Sandinista campaigners in Nicaragua’s 1990 elections, and the agency is likely to be utilized as a means of taming or undermining Central America’s left in future elections.

The challenge of the domestic economy, however, is certain to supersede foreign affairs in the early days of a Clinton administration. Expectations for economic change are running high. In this transition period Clinton is grappling with the need to stimulate the economy while not swamping financial markets with more red ink from the federal deficit.

Clinton will advance an economic package which couples a mild fiscal stimulus for the economy with a medium-term deficit reduction plan. Clintonomics will include tax breaks for business, focused on investment tax credits for new plants and equipment, some cut in capital gains tax short of the windfall for the wealthy which the Republicans hungered for, and tax incentives for corporate research and development.

He will rely on increased spending on infrastructure as a jobs program. Engineering firms are likely to thrive in the early days of Clinton’s term, as will all industries linked to construction, including heavy trucks, machinery, and electrical equipment.

Conclusions for the Movements

Clinton’s foreign policies resemble Bush’s in broad strokes, but there are differences in the details, differences which can be exploited by progressives in the United States and which will have a crucial impact on the lives of citizens of the Third World.

Clinton comes into office without the imperatives of the Cold War guiding U.S. foreign policy. For the first time in twelve years, we have an executive who is not beholden to an ultra-right social and foreign policy agenda. But neither is Clinton looking to his left for approval before acting. Although African-American votes were crucial in providing the margin of victory in states like Georgia, Clinton went out of his way to proclaim his independence from Jesse Jackson through thinly veiled racial appeals to white, working-class Democrats.

During the campaign, Clinton did a classic bob and weave, at times stepping left but always jabbing right. By proclaiming the existence of a “new Democratic party” Clinton signaled his independence from the party’s core constituents: African Americans, labor, and the poor. His acceptance of the NAFTA, his vigorous promotion of workfare programs, and his carefully calculated denunciation of Sister Souljah delivered the unmistakable message that Bill Clinton will not enact an agenda designed to appease progressive Democrats.

Natalie Davis, a Democratic pollster, summed up Clinton’s approach earlier this year, when she advised party officials in Alabama to tailor their message:

“Instead of talking about Democrats lifting someone out of poverty, describe the party’s goal as helping average Americans live the good life; Instead of saying Democrats want to eliminate homelessness and educate the underclass, talk about finding a way for young couples to buy their first home….”

Ron Brown, chair of the Democratic National Committee, put it bluntly a week after the election: “It won’t be hard for him [Clinton] to say no. Until this year, the Democratic Party was identified as the special interest party. But Bill Clinton has broken this strangle hold.”

On the other hand–and there’s always an other hand with Clinton–from the stump he concentrated on issues like universal health care, education, reproductive rights, environmental protection, and ending discrimination against gays and lesbians which must be at the core of any progressive agenda. Such an agenda will be advanced only as a result of sustained pressure from the left.

With the advent of hemispheric free trade agreements the repression of labor in Mexico’s maquiladoras cannot be separated from joblessness in Detroit. Increasingly, ecological and health crises spill across frontiers. If progressives are to have any impact we need to forge a movement which no longer artificially separates foreign and domestic policies.

During the 1980s, a broad movement emerged to challenge U.S. intervention in the Third World, particularly in South Africa and Central America. These movements–for the first time in U.S. radical history–went beyond an antiwar agenda to build a conscious identification and “solidarity” with liberation movements like the ANC and the FMLN. These struggles have experienced some ebb in the post-cold war period, but the potential endures for creating a new solidarity for the `90s, a solidarity without borders for economic justice both north and south.

The Central America solidarity movement is beginning to explore new approaches, seeking to challenge economic policies which bolster elites while brutalizing the majority at home and abroad. Through projects like the National Caravan for Peace in El Salvador–set to arrive in San Salvador in March with material aid–communities in the United States are establishing stronger ties to their counterparts in Latin America. Similarly, coalitions are springing up throughout the hemisphere to oppose NAFTA and demand economic justice for workers on both sides of the Rio Grande.

We need to mobilize the disenfranchised–the same social forces which the Democratic Leadership Council intends to keep on the margins. Few of Clinton’s economic proposals are designed to help those most in need; his programs are oriented towards the business community and a shrinking middle class. With his emphasis on restoring U.S. economic competitiveness, Clinton will continue to advocate neo-liberal policies for the Third World while applying bandaids to social problems at home. Creating an independent movement capable of exerting pressure on domestic and foreign policies will be crucial.

January-February 1993, ATC 42