The Age
Clinton's cruise control


Saturday 27 May 2000

Bill Clinton will be remembered for the excesses and limitations of his missile diplomacy. The excesses were demonstrated by attacks against Iraq, Yugoslavia and Sudan. The limitations have been underlined by relative American inaction in the face of appalling civil conflict and challenges to the United Nations in places such as Rwanda and, most recently, Sierra Leone.

At first sight, this confirms what we all suspect, but prefer to ignore. It is impossible to escape a nagging worry that much of the world, including Washington, is resigned to the desperate suffering afflicting parts of Africa. The complexity of the issues involved in Sierra Leone, painful memories of intervention in Somalia, and initiative fatigue on the part of the UN membership, all suggested the case belonged in the too-hard basket.

But the Bosnian and Kosovo crises also seemed intractable, and the Iraqi mess remains unresolved. Apparent intractability hasn't prevented energetic US engagement in these cases. Something else is going on. This something else includes US thinking on how to use its enormous military power. Even friendly critics worry about what is happening here - it seems the Pentagon is often asked to do either too much or too little.

The US emphasises high-tech solutions, especially air power, to solve problems. This is understandable since public opinion is averse to placing American lives in danger and the US has superiority in sophisticated long-range weaponry. The most recognisable symbol of this is the cruise missile. These missiles seem to allow the president to destroy almost any target, at almost any time, with little risk to poll ratings, and in ways which keep US warriors hundreds of miles out of harms way.

Unfortunately, this sort of capability can be conducive to trigger-happy diplomacy. This is especially true where easily identified, high-value targets are vulnerable to missiles, as in Yugoslavia. Here Clinton has indulged in a form of strategic incontinence. But it's a different story when the task requires sending in troops to support beleaguered UN missions, or hunt down war criminals. Then the so-called ghost of Vietnam appears (Rwandan ghosts don't get much of a say), and a form of withdrawal sets in.

Sadly, this combination of high-tech activism and risk avoidance contributes to an erosion of the UN's authority and credibility. Take US air strikes against Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Sudan in 1998-99. Each of these countries has a nasty government, but the case for US attacks was flawed and failed to gain UN approval. In response Washington publicly rubbished and blatantly circumvented the will of the organisation. The more negative consequences of US strikes included an escalation of the Balkan refugee problem, the termination of UN inspections in Iraq, the destruction of an alleged chemical weapons factory in Sudan that was actually producing medicines, and the marginalisation of the UN.

So far during Clinton's watch as the world's most powerful leader, Washington has delivered the UN a triple-whammy. It has attacked states in a manner contrary to the UN charter, it has been reluctant to help rescue UN peacekeepers on the ground, and it has failed to meet its financial obligations to the organisation. Not a good report card, and made worse if placed alongside Washington's sheltering of Israel after its harassment of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon in the '90s.

It is tempting to treat the UN contemptuously. It often fails to deliver. It sometimes gets bogged down by bureaucracy and petty politicking; there are administrative weaknesses; and it has a credibility problem, even when dealing with ragtag gangsters. But these problems should spur reform, not be used to excuse decisions that further undermine the organisation. Knockers of the UN too quickly forget that its a prisoner of its membership. It is this membership, particularly the most privileged states in the Security Council (and especially the US), that must decide to either reinvigorate the organisation or watch it slide into irrelevance.

Having said this, Clinton has better internationalist credentials than many politicians, and it is absurd to hold him responsible for all the woes of the UN. After all, there is much blame to be shared in the US Congress, and in numerous national capitals in Europe, Africa and Asia.

But Clinton entered the White House promising to strengthen the UN and at a time when Washington had unprecedented capacity to do good. Regrettably, unless he does something remarkable in the next few months, he will leave office looking more comfortable with his missile advantage than with his promise.

Dr Andy Butfoy is senior lecturer in international relations at Monash University.

Original article