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View related content: Foreign and Defense Policy
With the 2000 presidential campaign already well underway, there seems little doubt that American foreign policy will play a much greater electoral role than in our recent elections. Issues of foreign affairs and national security are likely to return to a prominence not far below where they stood during the Cold War.
Indeed, as many analysts have already observed, there are significant parallels with the 1980 presidential election. A weak and inadequate incumbent administration has severely weakened America’s standing in the world; threats to the United States have substantially increased and remained unanswered.
Discontent with the administration’s failed military and diplomatic policies is growing in Congress and among the general public, and the president and his national security advisers seem completely adrift.
One major difference between 1980 and 2000, of course, is that next year President Clinton will not be eligible for another term, as President Carter was in 1980. Even so, the Clinton administration’s foreign-policy record will be the backdrop for the inevitable political debate, particularly if Vice President Gore is his party’s nominee. Although the various Republican candidates remain divided on highly visible issues like Kosovo, the desire for a measurably different approach to foreign policy seems undeniable.
In this context, Bill Gertz’s new book, “Betrayal,” is must reading. Mr. Gertz provides a series of case studies of Clinton administration failures in defense and intelligence, based largely on his own reporting for The Washington Times, that create a cumulative impact both devastating and depressing.
Devastating because of the breadth of the failures: America’s inadequate response to the continuing nuclear threats posed by Russia’s deteriorating command-and-control structures; the Clinton administration’s fascination with arms-control agreements as a substitute for real nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the inadequacy of U.S. security measures to safeguard critical technologies from foreign espionage, etc. Depressing because of the Clinton administration’s ingrained inability to respond effectively to these challenges.
Mr. Gertz demonstrates tellingly that there is a pattern to Clinton administration decision making, the result of well-thought-out and deeply held national-security philosophies. Although the author also has much to say on individual incompetence and duplicity, his central point is how completely witting and united the administration’s policy leadership actually is in its wrongheaded view of America’s place in the world.
A corollary conclusion for Mr. Gertz is that “a significant part of the Clinton legacy will be the dominance of ‘spin’ over substance, a practice perfected during his tenure.” Indeed, the emphasis on spin is entirely consistent with Mr. Clinton’s “endless campaign,” which seeks first his election, then his re-election, then his “legacy” in history, all the while omitting any attempt at actually governing. Such an approach is especially damaging to foreign policy, which has so little appeal to the ever-political president that he rarely troubles himself to receive critical intelligence briefings.
Indeed, although Mr. Gertz’s emphasis is on defense matters, he does not overlook the hollowing out of America’s intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. As with declines in military spending on research and development, the cutbacks in the U.S. intelligence capability are neither easily nor quickly corrected, and form a significant obstacle to effectively reasserting U.S. interests internationally.
In Mr. Gertz’s analysis, spin and intelligence also intersect in the administration’s repeated distortions of what it actually knows. For example, he quotes one anonymous official saying that “Madeleine Albright lied to the Senate” about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and Mr. Gertz alleges that this incident is not a one-time occurrence.
The author also correctly analyzes the relationship between national security and economic policy, rejecting the administration’s mercantilist approach. Although, remarkably, Mr. Clinton has said “one reason I ran for president was to tailor export controls to the realities of a post-Cold War period,” he has obviously not done so. This is no small issue, and we urgently need an effective post-Cold War effort to protect America’s defense intellectual property, one that targets for control what can and should be controlled (but no more), and which does not confuse defense policy with economic dirigisme.
This is not an academic book intended for defense intellectuals (although they would be remiss if they did not read it), but rather straightforward reporting covering about six years of a dangerously flawed presidency. It is troubling that so much of the book depends on government sources leaking classified information, but this unfortunate fact only underlines just how corrosive the Clinton administration’s approach has been. Certainly, Mr. Gertz has given us more than ample notice of the damage caused by “the feel-good approach to national security.” The remedy is obviously in our hands.
John R. Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.
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