The political battles of the Clinton administration are over, but the fight over its place in history is just getting under way. The defense starts with considerable advantages: U.S. foreign policy has lurched and struggled so visibly under George W. Bush that the Clinton years can look positively Edenic. This fails to daunt Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review. The Clinton years, he charges, saw U.S. foreign policy dominated by two erroneous ideas: that the long history of violent geopolitics had come to an end and that the international politics of the future would revolve around issues such as globalization and the environment. Moreover, he claims, Bill Clinton and his advisers (most notably Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) fundamentally misread the politics of the Middle East, accepting the Arab view that progress required settling the Israeli-Palestinian problem rather than addressing the tyranny, brutality, and incompetence that plague the Arab world. Worse still, sedated by the illusion that the United States faced no serious dangers overseas, the Clintonistas wasted the waning months of their time in office on a futile and dangerous legacy hunt, with emissaries roaming the globe looking for some place where Clinton could sign a big trophy agreement that would secure his place in history. This offensive is interspersed with contemptuous remarks about how the intellectual and policy failures of the Clinton years reflected the personal shortcomings of the president.
Albright's riposte is surprisingly weak. She stresses accomplishments like the enlargement of NATO and victories in Bosnia and Kosovo but does not provide a closely argued defense of Clinton's record on the Middle East and terrorism. She conspicuously fails to address the most damning charge: that long-term national interest was sacrificed in a vain quest for landmark diplomatic victories. In the long run, Albright and her former colleagues are going to have to present a more comprehensive reply to the charges of hubris and fecklessness now swirling about them. In the meantime, however, they can continue to point to the troubles of their successors as evidence that their own record, if not exactly Churchillian, is not without its strengths.