The Clinton Administration's weeklong effort to define its approach to foreign policy culminated Monday with the President's address to the United Nations. That speech, like those that preceded it by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, contained little to disappoint America's friends or alarm the American people. While the specifics of a broad strategy remain largely lacking, the sense that the United States must--quite properly--remain deeply if selectively engaged in the world's affairs has been made explicit. But it's also clear that, at least where military power might be used, whether unilaterally or as part of U.N. operations, commitments are likely to be undertaken with great caution.
SELECTIVE ENGAGEMENT: None of this is surprising for an Administration that was at least helped into office by a popular feeling that President George Bush's perhaps too-visible involvement in global affairs had caused him to grow neglectful of the nation's swelling domestic problems. The Clinton Administration, with its ambitious agenda of things to do at home, seems determined not to invite similar accusations. Do not look, then, for any clarion calls from Bill Clinton for great new international crusades.
If the major policy speeches of the last week conveyed any message, it is that Washington plans to be quite choosy about where and how it engages abroad, especially where armed force is concerned. By no coincidence, that sense of caution reflects the wariness that has guided the nation's professional military thinking through most of the two decades, since American forces left Vietnam. In the Persian Gulf War that wariness took the form of insisting on having a preponderance of military force with which to face the enemy, a clearly defined and achievable mission and strong domestic backing for the operation. Those are not bad requirements to have in any situation.
Along with turning an attentive ear to professional military advice and concerns, the President must give respectful consideration to the thinking of Congress as he presides over the nation's foreign policy, not least as that might involve the deployment of troops.
PARTICULAR DISTASTE: It's already become clear that a deep reluctance exists in Congress for committing large numbers of Americans to international peacekeeping operations, and that there is a particular distaste for placing Americans in any significant numbers under foreign command. Congressional skepticism is growing particularly about U.S. involvement in U.N. operations in Somalia and, perhaps not far down the road, in Bosnia. The questions being asked in Congress echo those asked in the Pentagon, and they are the right ones to raise: What exactly are U.S. forces supposed to be doing, what are the rules of engagement and--perhaps most important of all--what are the conditions that would assure the safe and honorable withdrawal of forces once Washington deemed their mission completed? It's seldom hard to find the door that leads to armed intervention. What's vital, as Vietnam and the ill-fated American "peacekeeping" role in Lebanon in 1982 made so clear, is that before going in, a clear understanding must exist about how and when to get out. The exit must always be clearly marked and accessible.
A cautious foreign policy need not of course be a passive foreign policy. The commendable main goals outlined by both Clinton and Anthony Lake--deterring the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, "the enlargement of the world's community of market democracies"--deserve strong bipartisan support. The hard sell will come in justifying the deployment of troops abroad. It's pretty clear that military commitments that are open-ended in either their size or their duration no longer have a constituency or, indeed, any strategic rationale. The signals sent in recent days by the Clinton Administration reassuringly suggest that this point at least is understood.