Is There a Doctrine in the House? 

Every president wants a doctrine to call his own. But protocol requires others to confer it. So is there a Clinton Doctrine? I mean, other than “Oral Sex Isn’t Sex”? Something on the more traditional topic of when to use American military power? According to the president’s critics, the Clinton Doctrine is that American blood and treasure should flow whenever someone in a faraway land stubs his toe. Clinton gave these critics ammo with some swaggery “Never Again” talk about ethnic cleansing after the bombing campaign in Kosovo last year. But the Clinton Doctrine is actually subtler than that.

It addresses what almost everyone agrees is the right question: With the Cold War over, when should American force be used for reasons other than our own national security, narrowly defined? One legitimate answer is: never. But that is isolationism, an answer that both mainstream parties reject. If you wish to claim world leadership—which we do—you have to be willing to use your strength for something other than self-protection. The Clinton Doctrine’s answer is that the United States will sometimes try to stop humanitarian catastrophes and to protect liberty and democracy around the world.

OK, it doesn’t sound like much of a doctrine, let alone a subtle one. But the key words are “sometimes” and “try.” They directly contradict the most famous doctrine of recent years, the Powell Doctrine. Colin Powell’s doctrine can be summarized as “All or Nothing at All.” (Click here for a few bars from Frank Sinatra, courtesy of Any military activity should have clear and clearly achievable goals, should enjoy strong popular support, and should involve overwhelming force to assure certain and prompt victory. No quagmires.

The trouble with the Powell Doctrine is that if you take it seriously, it rules out just about any conceivable use of force except to repel direct threats to America’s own safety. It amounts to virtual isolationism again, via the great circle route. The Clinton Doctrine says: Why must it be all-or-nothing-at-all? There are intermediate situations, where our interests and values are at stake but not our security, which call for an intermediate response. These situations don’t justify half a million troops and a record-intensity bombing campaign but also don’t justify sitting on our hands. In such situations, a limited response with a reasonable chance of success need not become a quagmire, and even partial success can be more honorable than doing nothing.

The Clinton Doctrine does not elevate logical consistency to a moral precept. Whether we act depends on the circumstances. These include circumstances we frankly acknowledge, such as geographical distance or the risk of larger entanglements. They also include unmentionable circumstances such as the president’s current popularity rating, the nearness of an election, what else is going on, the mood and strength of the other party, how many of these things we’ve tried lately, and so on. It is, in short, very Clintonian. But not wrong for that reason.

Critics make great hay over the inconsistencies. Why Bosnia and not Rwanda? Why Kosovo and not Sierra Leone? They even suggest racism. But these complaints generally come when Clinton has acted, not when he has failed to act. It is a bizarre form of affirmative action to suggest that we must let white people be slaughtered in Kosovo because we let black people be slaughtered in Rwanda.

In Somalia, where we did intervene under Bush the Elder, the critics accused Clinton of turning a humanitarian effort into something bad called “nation building.” Yet when Clinton has attempted purely humanitarian interventions of his own, with no larger agenda than saving lives, he stands accused of “misusing our troops as social workers.” The critics seize any opportunity to interpret an ambiguous result as total failure. (By the standards they apply to Kosovo, French reprisals against collaborators delegitimize World War II.) And, of course, when all else fails, the critics like to suggest that Clinton’s own personal failings deny him the moral authority to act. (In other words Bosnians should die for Monica Lewinsky’s sins.)

But you can’t beat a horse with no horse. When would the critics use American force? The 2000 Republican platform quotes George W. Bush: “Let us reject the blinders of isolationism, just as we refuse the crown of empire. Let us not dominate others with our power—or betray them with our indifference” and so on. The platform goes on to call for “promoting U.S. interests and principles” but “avoiding … perilous conflicts” with a “new strategy” reflecting “a distinctly American internationalism.”

In short, they have no idea. “Neither this nor that” is a hoary rhetorical device (“negotiate out of fear … fear to negotiate”), and not a bad principle of governing. But “insufficiently neither this nor that” is not much of a critique. Nor is promising to be “more neither this nor that” much of a guide to your future actions. The GOP platform complains about “a chorus of empty threats … in the Balkans,” but doesn’t say whether the threats should have been backed up by action or should not have been made. It says carefully that “Americans are troubled by the humanitarian catastrophes that have plagued the people of Africa,” but even more carefully doesn’t say what America should do about them.

“Republicans have a strategy,” the platform declares, and gives plenty of examples of what it isn’t but never says what it is. Tendentious hindsight is not a strategy. The kindest interpretation of the Republican position is: Sometimes we will act and sometimes we won’t; it all depends on the circumstances.” In other words, the Clinton Doctrine is now our bipartisan foreign policy.