The Squandered Presidency: Demanding More from the Commander in Chief

Courtesy Reuters

U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton era was not a disaster. In some respects, it was even a modest success. Not surprisingly, therefore, the basic theme of those who defend the administration -- those who give it reserved praise (Stephen M. Walt, "Two Cheers for Clinton's Foreign Policy," March/April 2000) -- is that the Clinton administration did not upset the pervasive peace and prosperity it began its tenure with. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. Indeed, such a defense of the Clinton era misses the larger point: the overriding theme of recent U.S. foreign policy is underachievement and squandered potential. Like investors crowing about the returns of a money-market fund when they could have been sharing in the greatest bull market in history, Clinton supporters are satisfied, rather than upset, only because they compare their gains to what was, rather than what might have been.

Clinton inherited a world of unprecedented American advantage and opportunity and did little with it. Few relationships or institutions bear his imprint; no consensus exists at home on U.S. purposes in the world or how they should be pursued. Indeed, the measure of Clinton's tenure is less what he said and did than what he failed to say and failed to do. As a result, he will bequeath his successor a dangerous international situation and a difficult domestic one -- situations more dangerous and difficult than those Clinton himself faced and than should have been allowed to develop.

Despite some noteworthy achievements in foreign as well as domestic policy, the Clinton era was marked by a preference for symbolism over substance and short-term crisis management over long-term strategizing. Unlike domestic policy, however, foreign policy suffered from a lack of presidential interest, attention, and respect. It suffered, in short, from malign neglect.


Several of Clinton's accomplishments stand out in the economic realm. Clinton inherited agreements largely negotiated by his predecessor, but he still deserves credit for gaining congressional

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