How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
Just after 10:30 AM on August 7, 1998, two truck bombs exploded within minutes of each other outside the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people—12 of them Americans—and wounding more than 5,000 others. In the days that followed, the FBI and the CIA briefed U.S. President Bill Clinton on those they believed were responsible. “This one is a slam dunk, Mr. President,” said the CIA’s basketball-loving director, George Tenet. “There is no doubt that this was an al Qaeda operation.”
The CIA had been tracking Osama bin Laden, the fanatical son of a Saudi construction magnate, since 1996. His global organization, al Qaeda, was not yet synonymous with mass carnage, but the CIA knew that it was plotting operations against U.S. interests around the world. Now, the CIA director didn’t just have proof that bin Laden was behind the East African embassy bombings—he had intelligence that would allow the president to target the terrorist mastermind. Bin Laden planned to attend a meeting near the southern Afghan town of Khost on August 20, the agency had learned. Soon after the meeting with Tenet, Clinton told his national security adviser, Samuel Berger, to begin preparations for a military strike.
But as Berger and other aides drew up a target list for the planned attack, a very different kind of intelligence altered Clinton’s presidency forever. On August 16, the president learned that semen found on the dress of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky contained DNA that matched his own. For the last seven months, Clinton had denied an affair with Lewinsky, including in a sworn deposition related to a separate sexual harassment suit brought by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. But he had agreed to appear voluntarily before the grand jury of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, and the date for his testimony had been set for August 17. Now, with the evidence from the dress, the president would have to admit what modern science could prove.
Clinton constantly worried about blurring the lines between domestic politics and foreign policy.
The implications of the scandal enveloping the White House weren’t lost on Clinton’s national security team as it assembled a plan to assassinate bin Laden by cruise missile. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both staffers on the National Security Council, recalled Secretary of Defense William Cohen saying to members of the NSC in the Situation Room that the president would face criticism for “trying to change the subject.” After the Pentagon shared the final plan for the strike with Clinton, another aide cautioned the president about the political optics of military action. “If I have to take more criticism for this, I will,” Clinton replied.
And take criticism he did. On August 17, Clinton appeared before the grand jury and then went on national television to admit an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky. Three days later, U.S. warships fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles at al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and at a suspected chemical weapons factory in Sudan. Bin Laden escaped unharmed, and the Sudanese factory turned out to make pharmaceuticals. But even before the error in Sudan was confirmed, some lawmakers reacted to the missile strikes with incredulity. Although Republican leaders supported the president’s decision, the grumbling on Capitol Hill was so widespread that members of the president’s own party felt the need to respond. “I know some are suggesting this was a decision made for other reasons, because of the Monica Lewinsky investigation,” Senator Christopher J. Dodd, of Connecticut, said. “To those people I have one thing to say: Either put up or shut up.”
But the narrative didn’t go away. At a Pentagon press briefing on August 20, a journalist even asked Secretary of Defense William Cohen if he had seen the Hollywood movie Wag the Dog, in which the U.S. president stages a fake war in Albania in the midst of a sex scandal. Although wholly unsubstantiated, the Wag the Dog parallel caught on in popular culture—and it hit a nerve with the president. And as the scandal devolved into the second impeachment crisis of the superpower era, Clinton constantly worried about being perceived as blurring the lines between domestic politics and foreign policy. The pressures of impeachment would continually test that sacred barrier and occasionally breach it—just as they had in the Nixon era.
Clinton handled impeachment in a fundamentally different way than Nixon did a quarter century earlier, but his vulnerability invited similar challenges from revisionist powers bent on disrupting the international system. Unlike Nixon, who delegated day-to-day responsibility for foreign policy to Henry Kissinger, Clinton remained the most important decision-maker throughout his impeachment saga. A decade younger than Nixon was during Watergate, Clinton was also not as psychologically traumatized by his personal political crisis. His resilience enabled him to devote more energy and focus to foreign policy. Even so, during a meeting in the Middle East in December 1998, when the House’s impeachment hearings were at their height, aides watched the president scrawl on a notepad, “focus on your job, focus on your job, focus on your job.” Clinton seems to have followed his own advice for the most part, and he never shifted overall supervision of foreign affairs to his lieutenants.
Clinton also faced a very different international system than Nixon did. The end of the Cold War had weakened the ability of the superpowers—never great to begin with—to temper or blunt regional power plays. At the same time, it unleashed new and deadly transnational ambitions among non-state actors that seemed more characteristic of the Middle Ages than of the modern era. Compared to Nixon and Kissinger, Clinton and his national security staff faced a more formidable cast of villains eager to exploit the administration’s domestic difficulties. As Clinton confided in his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a few days before the bin Laden strike, “We’re going to increasingly have to deal with terrorists with no ties to any nation-state …[I]n the case of a lot of Middle East and African countries, we could be dealing with these people, like in those old James Bond movies with SPECTRE and Dr. No. We’re going to have a twenty-first-century version of those.”
The nature of such adversaries made the late 1990s a very different testing ground for a weakened U.S. presidency than the early 1970s. Clinton faced multiple foes with less to gain from shoring up the international system than from disrupting it. Among these, in addition to bin Laden, were Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, both of whom sensed opportunity in the wounded American presidency. Each sought to defy the United States in a moment of domestic political confusion, often adjusting the boldness of their provocations to match their perceptions of Clinton’s weakness.
Trouble came first from Milosevic, less than a month after early rumors of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky appeared on the Drudge Report in January 1998. The Serbian leader, then the self-styled president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, had begun flooding troops into the rebellious province of Kosovo. Milosevic feared that the province’s Albanian majority would follow the lead of the Croats, Slovenes, and Bosnians in seeking independence from the rump Yugoslav state, and so he prepared to crush any such aspirations.
While the situation in Kosovo deteriorated, so did the U.S. president’s domestic political position.
The United States had played a leading role in forcing Serbia to accept the loss of most of Bosnia in 1995. As a result, Milosevic saw any weakening of the American presidency as helpful in holding on to the territories that remained under his control. In July, Milosevic’s forces began “busting” Kosovar towns, driving out Albanian-speaking civilians with the stated goal of rooting out members of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army. The Pentagon worried that full-scale ethnic cleansing was not far behind, and so it submitted plans for an air campaign to NATO, which had already undertaken an unsuccessful flyover exercise in order to deter the Serbian leader.
While the situation in Kosovo deteriorated, so did the U.S. president’s domestic political position. On September 9, Starr issued his salacious report to Congress, recommending articles of impeachment against Clinton for lying under oath and then seeking to cover up his affair with Lewinsky. Almost immediately, the Republican majority in the House began preparing for an impeachment inquiry, which the House Judiciary Committee formally commenced on October 5.
By October 2, Clinton had decided to prepare Congress and the public for airstrikes against Milosevic. But the president didn’t want or expect that the United States would ultimately have to use force. Clinton sent his chief Balkans negotiator, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, to Belgrade to broker a diplomatic settlement with Milosevic. On October 12, Holbrooke struck what he thought was a deal to get the Serbian leader to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. But the White House and the U.S. team at NATO couldn’t be sure the agreement would hold, so preparations for an airstrike continued. The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political arm, approved an air campaign that would begin as early as October 16, and NATO began assembling strike aircraft in Italy to put Milosevic on notice. Clinton continued to believe that even though his presidency was under strain in Washington, the threat of force was credible and would be enough to convince the Serbian leader to back down. “I’m convinced we can avoid military action, if it [military action] is always hanging there,” he told Blair on October 14.
The president was right about the Serbian dictator, at least for the time being. The next day, October 15, Milosevic caved, pledging to withdraw the forces he had deployed to Kosovo over the last seven months. General Wesley Clark, the NATO military commander, met with Milosevic that day to nail down the details of the withdrawal, and NATO agreed to put a ten-day hold on the planned airstrikes to ensure Milosevic’s compliance. For the moment, Clinton’s high-stakes brinkmanship appeared to have paid off. His impeachment troubles, moreover, didn’t seem to have diminished his ability to cow a dictator like Milosevic into submission.
But the embattled U.S. president didn’t have to face down just one revisionist autocrat that October. And while one can debate the extent to which domestic U.S. politics shaped Milosevic’s choice of tactics in Kosovo, there can be little doubt that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sought to take advantage of the impeachment scandal to escape a UN containment regime imposed on him by Clinton’s predecessor, President George H. W. Bush.
Clinton was confident he would get bipartisan support to go through with the strikes in Iraq.
At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 687, which required Iraq to identify and destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers. Although Iraq had formally accepted the resolution in April 1991, seven years later the United States believed that Saddam was cheating. “I’ve reached the conclusion after eliminating all possible alternatives that Saddam still has the makings of a chemical and biological program he doesn’t want to give up,” Clinton had told Blair back in February. As he had been with Milosevic, Clinton was prepared to threaten force, but bombing was not his preferred means of dealing with the dictator. In the same conversation with Blair, he had revealed that he had sent a signal to Saddam through King Hassan of Morocco: “I told him to go to Saddam, call him, and tell him that I have no interest in killing him or hunting him down. I’m not fooling with him. I just don’t want his chemical and biological program going forward.”
In the summer of 1998, the U.S. president’s deteriorating political fortunes seem to have emboldened the Iraqi dictator. On August 5, Saddam expelled UN inspectors sent to catalogue Iraq’s compliance with the WMD portion of Resolution 687. Clinton sought to pressure Saddam through additional UN sanctions, but, unlike Milosevic, the Iraqi dictator dug in. On October 31, Iraq announced that it was ending all cooperation with the UN inspection regime, known as UNSCOM. Unless the UN lifted sanctions and purged certain UNSCOM officials that the Iraqis didn’t like, weapons inspectors wouldn’t be allowed back into the country.
Clinton seemed to grasp that the Iraqi leader was testing him. On November 3, the day of the midterm elections in the United States, he called Blair again. “We have to take decisive action this time to respond to Saddam’s challenge,” he said. “It is clear to me that Saddam really wants to force the [Security] Council to lift sanctions without giving up his weapons of mass destruction and missile program.”
Later that day, the U.S. president received an unexpected boost as a result of the midterms, one that would cause the threat of impeachment to temporarily recede and likely strengthened his hand with Saddam. Historically, second-term presidents have seen their parties lose seats in their sixth year in office. But in the 1998 midterms, the Democrats, not the Republicans, gained seats (five in total), signaling that impeachment was a political loser. Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had made impeachment the rallying cry of the midterm campaign, was forced to resign his speakership on November 7, pending the selection of his replacement.
Clinton and his aides assumed that the Republican drive for impeachment would end as a result, but they pressed ahead with their preparations to strike Saddam’s military headquarters as well as his suspected WMD depots. On November 11, Clinton told his friend and historian Taylor Branch, with whom he was taping a presidential diary, that he assumed the impeachment crisis had subsided. He also told his diarist that he had approved “orders to dispatch more bombers and reposition ships” for the planned operation in Iraq. He hoped Saddam would get the message and back down as Milosevic had done. If the Iraqi leader didn’t, Clinton was confident he would get support from Republicans as well as Democrats to go through with the strikes.
Clinton’s signaling worked once again, and on November 14, the Iraqis sent two letters to the UN, the second less equivocal than the first, promising to allow UNSCOM back in. Berger rejected the first as “Swiss cheese,” or full of holes, and because there was a great deal of uncertainty about whether the second was acceptable, the military preparations continued.
The next day, with U.S. and British bombers in the air, Clinton finally decided to place a hold on the strikes. He did so over the objections of Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Secretary of Defense Cohen, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton, all of whom thought that Saddam couldn’t be trusted to keep his word. But the president felt that he couldn’t launch a strike that would inevitably kill Iraqis if Saddam had formally backed down. In calling off the attack, Clinton made it clear that this was Saddam’s last chance: if he interfered with UNSCOM’s disarmament mission again, the United States would respond with military force.
Clinton’s successful brinkmanship with Saddam and Milosevic in the fall of 1998 came at a moment when his presidency was imperiled, although not yet in mortal danger. But neither threat of force was a Wag the Dog story. Had the embattled president wanted to distract the public from his personal foibles, he would have actually struck these deserving targets. Instead, he got them to back down without resorting to violence.
But not all areas of U.S. foreign policy remained insulated from domestic political pressures in the early days of Clinton’s impeachment crisis. Like Nixon before him, Clinton energetically sought a major foreign policy achievement to prove his indispensability. And also like Nixon, he sought that achievement in the Middle East. But Clinton’s chief Middle East negotiator, Ambassador Dennis Ross, found steering a peace process in the middle of an impeachment crisis much harder than Kissinger did.
“I could hardly insulate my efforts from the drama being played out in Washington,” recalled Ross, who served as a Middle East negotiator for both George H. W. Bush and Clinton. “President Clinton’s ability to survive in office was in doubt, with ill effect for the peace process.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular was skeptical that the president could remain in office. Yasir Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), had his own concerns, but he accepted Ross’s optimistic prognosis that the president would fend off this constitutional challenge.
Nonetheless, Clinton set his sights on the ultimate prize of Middle East peace. Back in 1994, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement between Israel and the PLO had started a five-year clock to complete a final agreement on Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. A year later, an interim agreement laid out some guideposts for redrawing the map in the areas Israel had occupied since 1967, transforming these areas into three zones of varying Israeli and Palestinian control. But the final map and the timetable for Israeli withdrawal remained unresolved in the fall of 1998. With less than a year remaining before the end of the five-year period, after which the PLO threatened to declare independence, there was already pressure on the parties to reach an agreement. Clinton’s impending impeachment added a touch of political desperation to the mix.
During his famous “shuttle diplomacy” in 1974, Kissinger had effectively held three posts: chief Middle East negotiator, secretary of state, and national security adviser. Twenty years later, three people held those positions—and impeachment tested the triad. In early September, Clinton ratcheted up the pressure on Berger and Albright, who, in turn, pressured Ross to wrap up the agreement between Netanyahu and Arafat.
Clinton pushed his Middle East team even harder after Starr’s damaging report was released to the public on September 11 and the gears of impeachment began to turn in Congress. Ross later recalled that he was being pressed “under the pressure of the Starr Report … to show that the President was doing his job, was not distracted, and was visibly dealing with highly sensitive, serious issues.” Ross added: “I would say that’s the one time—and I would also say that’s a unique circumstance where he literally thinks that his Presidency may be at stake and the only way to save his Presidency is to show that he’s being Presidential. I mean, it didn’t have to be this issue, it could have been something else, but this was the one that was there and it was probably most prominent and could capture attention.”
When Ross reported back that Arafat and Netanyahu were still far from a deal, Clinton apparently pounded the table, demanding that Albright and Berger get the results that he needed. Clinton wanted Arafat and the Israeli prime minister to come to the United States to conclude an agreement so he could have a very public diplomatic victory. For Nixon, the standard had been a repeat of his China trip. For Clinton, the standard was President Jimmy Carter’s historic 1978 Camp David accords, a peace deal between Egypt and Israel that enabled Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai.
In the end, Netanyahu offered Clinton a quid pro quo.
But Ross wasn’t Kissinger. He didn’t have the chits to play, and neither Albright nor Berger controlled a foreign policy regency. All U.S. foreign policy power flowed directly from Clinton, and his stature overseas had diminished as a result of the scandal. Ross didn’t sugarcoat the situation for his bosses: “The President doesn’t have the authority or clout with them [Arafat and Netanyahu] that he had previously—and they won’t make concessions just because he needs them to do a deal.”
Another problem was the president’s schedule, since the president wanted to be personally involved in closing the agreement. Clinton’s approval rating remained high throughout the fall, despite the revelations of his affair and the opening of an impeachment inquiry. As a result, Democratic congressional candidates were eager for him to stump for them in their districts, a task the president viewed as a welcome distraction. Unlike Nixon, Clinton loved campaigning. But the midterms placed an artificial deadline on the Middle East negotiations, since Clinton political team hoped he would be available by October 24 or so for the last week of the campaign.
That deadline—and the U.S. president’s need for a win—gave Netanyahu an edge. The Israeli leader agreed to come to the Wye Plantation in Maryland on October 15 for negotiations with Arafat, but he wasn’t prepared to make additional concessions. Although the peace process was very popular with most Israelis, it was not popular with the base of supporters that propped up his fragile Likud government. As a result, for Netanyahu the advantage lay in appearing to be for peace without really doing anything to achieve it.
In the end, Netanyahu offered Clinton a quid pro quo. U.S. negotiators thought they were on the verge of brokering an agreement between Netanyahu and Arafat, but at the last minute, the Israeli prime minister insisted that he could not give his final assent without a side agreement with Clinton: the United States would have to pledge to release Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen who had been convicted of spying for Israel. In his memoirs, Clinton admitted that he told Netanyahu that he was "inclined" to release Pollard if that was what it would take for Netanyahu to accept the deal with Arafat.
Clinton floated this idea on his own, and when he told his negotiating team that he had done so, many members objected. Albright thought that Netanyahu was engaging in blackmail. Tenet, whose CIA was essential for brokering the complex security arrangements that would be needed to govern the future West Bank, threatened to resign on the spot if the Pollard deal happened. The U.S. intelligence community had experienced Pollard’s espionage as not just a personal betrayal but as a betrayal of Israel’s special intelligence relationship with the United States. With hours left before the Clinton administration’s self-imposed deadline of October 23, the Israelis leaked that the deal wasn’t happening because Clinton had reneged on his promise to Netanyahu.
Neither Clinton nor Netanyahu could afford to let the negotiations fail. Both leaders needed a win for their own domestic reasons. So instead of giving ground to one another, they decided to take something away from Arafat. The agreement on the table had promised to release from Israeli jails some 750 Palestinians, some of whom had injured or killed people. Now Clinton secretly promised Netanyahu that Israel could release more common criminals and fewer people whom Arafat viewed as political prisoners. Clinton vaguely revealed to his team that he had agreed to let Netanyahu alter the “mix” of prisoners to be released, so that they could get Arafat’s reluctant approval. But the U.S. president withheld the key detail that he had assured Netanyahu that he could refuse to release anyone with “blood on their hands.”
On October 23, Arafat and Netanyahu joined Clinton in Washington, D.C., for the signing of the Wye River memorandum. The agreement was to give the Palestinian Authority control over 40 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a major improvement over the 27 percent agreed on in 1995. For their part, the Israelis were to receive security guarantees, monitored by the United States, from the Palestine Liberation Army, the military wing of the PLO. The Clinton-Netanyahu understanding on Palestinian prisoners, once it became known, angered the Palestinians, but it didn’t scuttle the deal—or the diplomatic win that it conferred on Clinton.
The president’s domestic political problems didn’t disappear with the midterms. Even without Speaker Gingrich, the Republicans continued to pursue impeachment, to Clinton’s surprise. On December 11, the House Judiciary Committee sent three articles of impeachment to the House floor. The next day the Committee added a fourth, setting the stage for a debate and then a vote by the entire House. For the first time since October, Clinton’s presidency seemed in jeopardy, and once again, U.S. adversaries took note.
In early December, Saddam resumed his obstruction of UNSCOM’s inspection efforts and refused its representatives entry to an installation controlled by the ruling Baath Party. The move was a violation of Clinton’s November ultimatum and of the Iraqi leader’s commitment to the United Nations. On December 11, the same day that the Judiciary Committee sent its articles of impeachment to the floor, Clinton called Blair and told him that there would have to be a military response. Operation Desert Fox began five days later and included 650 bomber or missile sorties by U.S. and British air forces. It lasted four days and targeted Iraqi command and control sites as well as installations associated with WMD delivery systems. In addition, the Clinton administration changed its official Iraqi policy from “containment” to “containment plus” and made “regime change” its explicit goal.
Predictably, the operation reignited earlier partisan claims that the president was trying to distract the American public from his domestic political woes. Clinton had called off the planned attack against Baghdad in November, when the threat of impeachment was dissipating. In doing so, he had disappointed many on his national security team. Now, the president was forging ahead with the strikes at a time when the country was once again riveted by the impeachment drama. As a result, he was again vulnerable to charges, however unfair, of creating a Wag the Dog diversion.
But it was the Pentagon, not the president, that recommended the airstrikes and their timing. “I would never have been a party to anything—neither Cohen nor I—that was not based on sound military logic and something that needed to be done militarily,” Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later recalled. “The timing of that particular one had been made by Cohen and me, primarily based on my recommendation because of the light conditions, the attack conditions, the weather conditions that were forecast, and Ramadan that fell in that particular area.”
On December 19, 1998, the House approved two of the four articles of impeachment, necessitating the first Senate trial of a president since 1868. (Nixon resigned before the House approved any articles of impeachment.) Under the U.S. constitution, the bar is very high to remove a president, requiring the vote of two-thirds of the senators. But the Senate had a Republican majority, and despite Clinton’s enduring public support, even some senators from his own party wanted to find a way to punish him for his dishonesty and his Oval Office indiscretions.
The opportunity to get Bin Laden came just when Clinton’s impeachment crisis reached a crescendo.
The trial, which started on January 7, 1999, coincided with yet another sensitive military decision involving an opportunistic U.S. adversary. Ever since the failed attempt to kill bin Laden in August 1998, Clinton’s national security team had remained on the lookout for another opportunity to permanently disrupt al Qaeda’s leadership. Following the U.S. and British air campaign in Iraq, the terrorist mastermind had issued a threat that prompted the United States to close 38 embassies and three consulates in Africa for two full days. Not long after, Clinton’s national security team received intelligence that put bin Laden back in their sights. The opportunity to get him, it turned out, came just when Clinton’s impeachment crisis reached a crescendo.
Back in mid-December, U.S. intelligence officials had received information that the terrorist leader was spending a lot of time in Kandahar. At the beginning of February, the intelligence became more precise: bin Laden was at or near a desert hunting camp called Sheik Ali, and, according to later revelations in the 9/11 Commission Report, CIA informants believed he would be there until midmorning on February 11. On or about February 8, the White House ordered the Pentagon to begin preparing for another missile strike.
The timing could not have been worse for Clinton. February 8 was the day that the House impeachment managers, arguing for prosecution, and the president’s lawyers made their closing arguments in his Senate trial. The window of opportunity for the bin Laden strike—between then and February 11—coincided with the closed-door deliberations of the senators who would be deciding whether to convict or acquit Clinton.
Some in the administration counseled against carrying out the strike. Prominent figures from the United Arab Emirates were also known to be at the Sheik Ali camp. Clinton worried about what would happen if the Emiratis were killed and bin Laden survived or turned out not to have been there. But the tide in the administration seemed to be turning toward taking that risk—as well as the risk of an impeachment-related political uproar. Later, the 9/11 Commission found reason to believe that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who had replaced Gingrich in January, was notified of an impending attack. The U.S. military was ready to strike on the morning of February 11.
But the attack didn’t happen, and there is reason to believe that the Senate trial influenced Clinton’s decision to hold back. Top officials in his administration have sought to dispel that notion. “Before a decision could be made as to whether to launch a strike,” Tenet later wrote, “we got word [bin Laden] had moved on.” But that information came on February 12, a day after the U.S. military was ready to strike. And although no NSC staffers—in discussions with the 9/11 Commission—blamed the Senate trial for the president’s decision, they were divided over whether the intelligence had been good enough to run the risk of killing the Emiratis. In his memoirs, Tenet noted that he “never saw any evidence that Clinton’s personal problems distracted him from focusing on his official duties.” Nevertheless, he allowed that “[p]erhaps they circumscribed the range of actions he could take.” On February 12, the day that the military stood down the planned strike in Afghanistan, the Senate acquitted Clinton on both of the impeachment counts.
Compared to Nixon’s impeachment crisis in 1973–74, Clinton’s impeachment crisis coincided with a more turbulent period in U.S. foreign relations. Nixon and Kissinger’s unusual relationship, and the unusual respect it was accorded overseas, explains part of the difference, but there is a more important reason that Clinton faced so many tests in his moment of greatest vulnerability. Fewer powers had an interest in propping up a weakened chief executive in 1998–99 than in 1973–74, and more had an interest in challenging him when he seemed vulnerable. While the United States was indisputably the world’s sole superpower during Clinton’s presidency, its relative power was beginning to ebb. More important, a greater number of countries and dangerous nonstate actors were eager to reshape the global system that had emerged after the Cold War.
The weakening of Trump’s authority will invite ever greater challenges to U.S. interests.
What was true at the end of the 1990s is even truer today. In 2016, Americans elected a leader who rejected the very notion of an international system that relies on the United States to maintain equipoise. U.S. President Donald Trump understands international affairs through threats and counterthreats, bluffs, and exploitation, and these are the means by which he expects other countries to behave. The success of Trump’s approach depends on the illusion of U.S. invincibility, and by extension his own. A weakening of his authority, in this more Hobbesian world, will invite ever greater challenges to U.S. interests.
Historians have much to learn about the tit for tat between Iran and the United States in the final months of 2019, but, at the very least, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian leadership underestimated what Trump would do if tested during his impeachment crisis. There can be no doubt, however, that another U.S. adversary, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, has taken advantage of the current impeachment crisis to resume his nuclear program. On December 31, 2019, Kim announced a “new path,” promising more nuclear tests and a backing away from diplomatic efforts to denuclearize. In January, reports emerged of preparations for more missile tests.
Moreover, the Trumpian worldview ensures that American foreign relations will be distorted to serve the end of personal political survival. The Nixon and Clinton cases show that while those presidents occasionally breached the barrier between domestic politics and foreign policy, they knew that they shouldn’t. Trump has no such compunction, as the very basis for the impeachment trial makes clear. The use of executive action to distract, which Nixon and Clinton were at least wary of when it came to foreign affairs, was a beloved tool of this president before impeachment was even on the horizon. Having sold himself as a dealmaker, moreover, Trump is even more likely than his predecessors to want to produce agreements with foreign states. The details of the recently signed U.S.-Chinese trade deal have yet to be made public. But it is unlikely this time that Beijing acted as it did in 1973–74, helping a wounded president maintain a stable international system. Rather, like Netanyahu in 1998, it likely exploited the U.S. president’s need for a deal that he can hold up as a win. Even after being impeached for subordinating the national interest to his own, Trump appears to see foreign policy only as a means to personal ends. “Get over it,” as his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney advises us all.
High Crimes From the Middle Ages to the Age of Trump