Foreign policy as social work

January 29, 1996|By Jeane Kirkpatrick

WASHINGTON -- An extremely interesting analysis of President Clinton's foreign policy is offered in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, by ''Friend Of Bill'' Michael Mandelbaum. From the downsizing of the military to the deploying of U.S. troops on three continents. Mr. Mandelbaum finds the president's approach almost as strange as I do.

He sees ''three failed military interventions'' -- in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia -- as ''defining events'' of the Clinton administration -- events that express a ''distinctive view'' of America's role in the post-Cold War world. Each involved a decision to use U.S. military forces when it was not really necessary. Each failed to achieve its goal: A ''proud nation'' was not constructed in Somalia; ''democracy'' was not restored in Haiti; Bosnians were not protected from ethnic cleansing.

New ways, new goals

Each of these interventions used military power in a new way, in a new place, in pursuit of a new goal.

The Clinton team, Mr. Mandelbaum notes, refocused U.S. foreign policy -- from international centers of power to small, poor countries, from American national interests and the power relations of states to the social problems of people in distress.

He notes: ''Historically the foreign policy of the United States has centered on American interests, defined as developments that could affect the lives of American citizens. Nothing that occurred in these countries fit that criteria.'' Instead, the Clinton team ''tried and failed to turn American foreign policy into a branch of social work.''

These policies, he says, were inspired by the desire of the national-security adviser, Anthony Lake -- and Bill Clinton's desire -- to help helpless people to whom the United States had no special ties, in countries where the United States had no national interest.

In fact, Mr. Mandelbaum thinks the absence of a national interest is a defining characteristic of these military interventions, one which seems to give them special appeal. Mr. Lake is a man committed to use of American power for disinterested moral ends, much like Woodrow Wilson, who wrote in 1914 that he would not rest until he had eliminated the last bit of selfishness or egoism from his policies.

Mr. Lake has told us (Mr. Mandelbaum reminds us) that: ''When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict. I want to work to save every child out there,'' even though he understands that ''neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so.''

Mr. Lake wants to ''help the helpless.'' But that leaves no one to look after U.S. interests or do ''great power'' politics. ''I think Mother Teresa and Ronald Reagan were both trying to do the same thing,'' Mr. Lake said, ''one helping the helpless, one fighting the Evil Empire.'' Not so, says Mr. Mandelbaum. Mother Teresa was saving lives; Ronald Reagan was doing foreign policy -- pursuing the U.S. national interest. Messrs. Lake and Clinton seem never to think of that.

Cutting foreign policy loose from U.S. national interests diverts the government's efforts and dissipates national resources in the pursuit of marginal goals. It leaves important domains and problems untended.

Mr. Mandelbaum believes the Clinton team has neglected U.S. relations with major powers. (I agree.) Here there is a sad contrast to the Bush administration, which focused on building and enhancing U.S. relations with Western Europe, Japan, China, Russia. All these relations have now deteriorated. The president -- off in pursuit of unconventional goals -- is neglecting the store.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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