It’s hard to look back on Bill Clinton without the intruding specter of Hillary. She would have been a horrible president if elected in 2016. But her husband was a surprisingly good chief executive in many ways, though deficient in others. Typically he is loved or hated: loved by Democrats who fell under the spell of his charisma, and resented by Republicans who never got over the fact that he beat them and put them to shame at every turn with conservative budgetary policies. If not for his misguided military interventions around the world, Clinton would have been a very good president overall.
I doubt there will be a fiscal Democrat like Bill Clinton in the near future. At the time of this writing, the primaries for the 2020 election are a month away, and the two Democratic candidates leading in the polls are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom would be good for the nation’s welfare. Biden would be another Obama (a guaranteed foreign policy and fiscal failure), and Sanders, who has some good ideas in theory, would in practice (and by his own admission) take us down the road of FDR, whose New Deal did more harm than help. Most of the budget hawks who gave America long-term prosperity were Republicans: Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower. After the 60s the Republican presidents lost their way on this priority, and it took a Democrat to find it again.
But Clinton is remembered less for his fiscal shrewdness, and more for Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment proceedings. He was rightly acquitted by the Senate. While lying to a grand jury is perjury, committing perjury over a private matter does not constitute a matter of “high crimes or misdemeanors against the state“. Clinton should have come clean about Monica Lewinsky, settled Paula Jone’s sexual harassment suit against him, and not lied under oath. But he didn’t deserve to be impeached for not doing that. On to important matters now.
1. Peace (Foreign Policy)
While Clinton’s peace record isn’t terribly good, he wasn’t nearly as bad as the two Bushes and Obama. There were no major wars during his two terms, and unlike his predecessor and two successors, he avoided committing ground troops and permanent garrisons. Once you commit forces on the ground, things get rapidly unpleasant, soldiers get mired in chaos, and the likelihood increases of committing to nation-building strategies that are counterproductive and suck the life out of everyone involved. Clinton, to his credit, steered clear of such quagmire messes throughout his two terms. He intervened in eight regions, a total of seven times. I’ll go through each.
He hit the ground running in Somalia, inheriting Bush’s guard relief mission. The mission was to protect UN food deliveries in a nation of anarchy, and Clinton decided to extend the mission by going after the warlord Muhammad Aideed. This resulted in the famous Black Hawk Down incident, in which 18 American soldiers were killed, some of them dragged through the streets on camera. Clinton beat a hasty retreat. Eventually it was learned that Osama Bin Laden — still chafing at Bush’s intervention and garrison in the Persian Gulf — was involved in the attack. Bin Laden laughed in derision of American “cowardice”: Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon in ’82, and Clinton’s from Somalia in ’93, proved in his eyes that Americans were without honor.
Clinton took his own lesson from Somalia, but only a half-decent one. Instead of staying out of wars that were of no strategic interest, he continued intervening abroad without using ground forces.
In September of 1994, he sent 20,000 U.S. troops to invade Haiti in the name of restoring democracy and human rights. The mission was called Operation Restore Freedom, and was hailed by leftists all around for providing a model of (supposedly) liberal interventionism. Clinton was backing former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and he succeeded in restoring Aristide to power, while kicking out a thuggish military regime. But Aristide was just as despotic as the thugs he supplanted, and Clinton had to have known this in advance. Aristide’s anti-capitalist and undemocratic record was clear.
Clinton’s real reason for Operation Restore Freedom was the overflow of Haitian refugees in Florida. He had blasted Bush for refusing to allow Haitian refugees to come to America, and rightly so; but Clinton hadn’t thought the issue through. When he reversed Bush’s policy, Florida was inundated with thousands of Haitian refugees requiring food, clothing, and medical attention. Feeling responsible, Clinton backed Aristide, vainly hoping he would be better for the Haitians. He was proven wrong right away, and a decade later in 2004, as Aristide celebrated his tenth anniversary of return to power, most Haitians were still demonstrating against him, if they weren’t too weak from starving. Nothing had changed in Haiti at all.
North Korea (1994)
Clinton’s most significant intervention could have been a nuclear disaster. When North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and cut off the international inspections of its facilities, Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry threatened war. Perry announced his intentions to bomb North Korea’s main nuclear facility, though he was bluffing and didn’t really want a war. That bluff was perilous brinksmanship.
Salvation came from former president Jimmy Carter. Completely irrespective of Clinton’s wishes, Kim Il Sung invited Carter to visit North Korea, and Clinton (very wisely) ate crow and gave Carter his blessing to smooth things out. It allowed Kim to save face, and through Carter, Clinton made an agreement for North Korea to freeze their nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions against them. Later, however, North Korea broke the deal and eventually pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty anyway.
This incident calls to mind the past and present. For the past, Clinton’s behavior repeated that of Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The reckless behavior of his Secretary of State could have ignited a nuclear war, as Kennedy’s naval blockade might have. Clinton then gave Kim a face-saving way out, as Kennedy had done with Khrushchev. But unlike the agreement with Khrushchev, the agreement with Kim was in vain, as North Korea never had any intention of keeping it.
Appeasement rarely works with despots, and this is a lesson we have learned in the present, from Obama’s appeasement policy with Iran. That agreement bore the inevitable rotten fruit, which prompted Donald Trump to strike back in January 2020. While Trump’s action could have started a war, it was a necessary risk, as Soleimani’s multiple aggressions had to be countered. This is unlike the case of Clinton, whose secretary of defense was provoking North Korea not on account of actual attacks, but threats to withdraw from a treaty.
Clinton intervened twice in former Yugoslavia, first in 1995. Yugoslavia was the last socialist country in Europe since the Soviet Union dissolved, and NATO wanted to break up the country and encourage civil war there. The three-way Bosnian War went from April 6, 1992 – December 15, 1995, and was basically Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia all fighting each other at some point. All three sides committed atrocities, but NATO targeted Serbia as the strongest nation and because its leader Slobodan Milosevic was trying to keep Yugoslavia unified. Serbia was thus the declared villain, but there were really no good guys or villains per se in this internal strife.
Clinton not only took the policy lead for NATO (in August of 1995), he soon dominated the process. He wisely avoided putting boots on the ground, and relied solely on air force bombings, and at the end of the year, Serbia agreed to the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. Clinton won the war but should have stayed out of Yugoslavia to begin with. He created a bad precedent, transforming NATO from a purely defensive alliance (designed to deter or repel attacks on its members) into an offensive organization. By striking against the Bosnian Serbs, Nato was attacking a secessionist government that hadn’t attacked (or even threatened) a NATO member.
The Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian conflict posed no security threat to the transatlantic community of NATO warranting direct U.S. involvement, let alone U.S. leadership over the affair. It would be as if America had expected European countries to assume leadership in addressing a civil war that broke out in, say, the Caribbean or Latin America. Clinton’s actions perpetuated European free-riding on U.S. security measures, and this dependence continued into the Obama and Trump presidencies.
Four years later, Clinton intervened in Kosovo, a Muslim province within the borders of Serbia. Once again Milosevic was declared the villain, with reports of his Serbian atrocities being way overblown. The media reported that Milosevic was committing genocide against the ethnic Albanians (who made up 92% of Kosovo’s population), even though Kosovo committed 80% of the cease fire violations. In fact, the terrorist organization called the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) committed most of the atrocities, well knowing that Milosevic would overreact; the KLA was hoping to prompt the intervention of outsiders on their behalf, and the gambit worked. Clinton (and NATO) justified their second campaign against Serbia as a “humanitarian war”, exaggerating Serb atrocities. (The Serb atrocities actually became bad after Clinton and NATO started the bombing campaign.) Clinton again wisely refused to use ground troops, relying high level aerial bombings, and he again won the war, but he should not have engaged in the first place. Not only did Yugoslavia’s internal strife pose no security threat or national-interest concerns to the U.S., Kosovo was the wrong side to back anyway.
Afghanistan & Sudan (1998)
Clinton did one thing right overseas. In response to the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (on August 7), he fired cruise missiles, pounding al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan. CIA Director George Tenet had reason to believe that Bin Laden would at one of the camps on August 20, and the intel appeared sound.
His action is analogous to Donald Trump’s recent strike against Soleimani in Iran. Both Clinton and Trump were doing as they should have. Both were absurdly accused of lashing out with missiles to divert the American public’s attention away from their impeachment proceedings. Clinton later argued, quite correctly, that he did far more to get Bin Laden than his successor George W. Bush did during his first eight months in office.
At the end of the year Clinton bombed sites in Iraq because it refused to cooperate with weapons inspectors from the UN. Clinton was again accused of using the air strikes to deflect attention away from his ongoing impeachment proceedings. More likely, he was simply being true to form as a constant interventionist, and in this case unwisely. The bombing didn’t make Saddam let the UN inspectors back in; it achieved nothing.
2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)
Immediately upon taking office, Clinton reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Carter, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. The result was the prosperity of the ’90s. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. (The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.)
Like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, Clinton was the fourth (and last) president of the 20th-21st centuries who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He also encouraged the lower classes to work, by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lowered taxes for those just above poverty line, thus encouraging them to keep working instead of going on welfare. The result of his welfare reforms was low unemployment (the lowest in thirty years), sinking poverty rates, and contracting welfare rolls. Clinton deserves immense credit for all of this.
Organizations and Domestic Legislation
Clinton created AmeriCorps in 1993, a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps involving young people in community service across the nation, in fields of education, public safety, health care, and environmental protection. The program employs around 75,000 Americans in these fields of intensive service.
As a strong advocate of globalization and free trade, Clinton got American on board in the newly created World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, which replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) created back in 1947. This is also to his credit.
He signed the Family Medical Leave Act (1993), which required employers to allow their employees to take up to three weeks of unpaid leave for family emergencies, and also the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (1999), which deregulated the financial industry, and allowed brokerage firms, banks, and insurance companies to merge.
Clinton’s liberty record isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. It’s brought down by four transgressions:
- Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (1994): Clinton wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but still required them to stay in the closet.
- Defense of Marriage Act (1996): It stalled progress on gay marriage considerably. To be fair, Clinton was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA.
- The Tobacco Industry (1997-98): Clinton wanted to give the tobacco industry some immunity from class action lawsuits in exchange for more strict anti-smoking regulation. That’s backwards: smoking is an individual decision (though a stupid one), and thus the government should minimize regulating it. Tobacco companies, on the other hand, are businesses which should face unlimited liability, like any business, for damage their product does to people.
- Surveillance (1998): By this year the American Civil Liberties Union reported that the Clinton administration had engaged in more surveillance and wiretapping than the U.S. government had done before. This set a bad precedent for the more egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment under the Younger Bush and Obama.
To his credit, Clinton signed the Brady Bill (1993), which mandated background checks for new gun ownership and a ban on assault weapons. Those requirements are not at odds with the Second Amendment.
Supreme Court Picks
Clinton appointed two Supreme Court justices, Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both progressive liberals. Progressives tend to be a mixed bag on the Supreme Court. The judiciary by its nature is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. It’s the nature of a progressive to seek favorable change, but the best place to crusade for that is the legislature. The judiciary is restrictive. On issues of civil liberties, abortion rights, and separation of church and state, Ginsburg and Breyer have ruled well, grounded in constitutional acumen and firm legal precedent. On questions of economic liberty, and separation of the public and private sectors, these two justices have left much to be desired.
The Reagan and Elder-Bush justices (Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas) made a critical impact on American jurisprudence in different ways, and often ruled against what others (and they themselves) might have expected of them, allowing themselves to be constrained by the law. Progressives like Ginsburg and Breyer have been more predictable and tribal. They are not bad justices by any means, and they don’t count against Clinton’s liberty score. But they don’t count for it either.
Bill Clinton’s report card is as follows:
Peace. He gets high marks for avoiding ground troops and major wars, but his military interventions were so numerous and (mostly) needless to downgrade him cumulatively so that he washes out in the middle. Somalia costs him a point, Haiti another, North Korea 3 points, Bosnia and Kosovo 3 points total, and Iraq another one. I don’t penalize him for his actions taken in Afganistan/Sudan in reply to the al-Qaeda bombings; his missile strikes there were justified. His total score is 11 points.
Prosperity. An immaculate record. I dock him a few points, however, since his fiscal austerity had as much to do with Republican pressures as his own initiatives, and so a full score of 20 seems too generous.
Liberty. For falling back on a lame “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, he loses 1 point. For his defense of heterosexual marriage (DOMA), he loses 3. For his ass-backwards position on tobacco regulation and lawsuit liability, he loses 2. And for using more wiretapping than necessary (though not nearly as bad as the egregious violations of Bush and Obama on Fourth Amendment issues), he loses 2. All for a total score of 12.
Peace — 11/20
Prosperity — 17/20
Liberty — 12/20
TOTAL SCORE = 40/60 = Average