MotherJones JF93: The stakes

For Clinton to restore Americans’ faith, he will need to define his own political identity in a way that lets him go over the heads of the country’s foreign-policy elite

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What does it mean to be an American today? What is our new role in the world now that the cold war has ended? These two questions, up for grabs since the fall of the Berlin Wall, were never faced squarely during the 1992 election. Having won the election without clearly defining himself, Bill Clinton is about to begin his term with the sketchiest of political mandates. His genius during the campaign derived from his ability to convince each of the disparate elements of the fractured Democratic coalition – many of whom hate one another’s guts – that he was (secretly, of course) on their side. This may have been smart electoral politics, but he will not be able to sustain it once in office and it is particularly important today that he not try. The nation is approaching a precipice. Once the richest and most productive economy in the world, we are on the way toward joining the Third World. Without a program of radical renewal, coupled with the political hardball necessary to implement it, the economy (and with it Clinton’s chances for reelection) will be doomed.

For years now, the Washington punditocracy has insisted that nothing much has changed since World War II. This is still the country that kicked Nazi ass, still largely inhabited by the cast of Leave It to Beaver. Though we may have let ourselves go around the middle, there is nothing wrong that a quick dose of political willpower can’t fix.

The problem is that nothing stands more forcefully in the way of the development of that willpower than this same pundit class. While the United States has watched its manufacturing base shrivel, its education system unravel, its social compact implode, and its political system become corrupted, the comfortable conventional wisdom of the capital has engaged in a system of denial so powerful that nothing – not even the incredible disintegration of our sacred Enemy – has been able to pierce it.

Before he can even begin to address the nation’s destructive pathologies, Bill Clinton will need to destroy this conspiracy of complacency. Unfortunately, while Clinton has shown the ability to speak poignantly about the human costs of our economic decline and social decay, he has not yet found it within himself to challenge the political assumptions that perpetuate them. Although he is moved (as most of the pundits are not) by the human costs of our economic decline and social dysfunction, he has yet to demonstrate his understanding of just how dire our condition has become. Does he realize the toll that twelve years of malign Republican neglect have taken on our failing productive capacities and tattered social fabric? Is he committed to fixing these things, even when it means facing down many of the same political and economic elites that helped ease him into the White House? The signs, to put it mildly, are mixed.

The boy governor of Arkansas (whose campaign communications director, George Stephanopoulos, is my best friend) is very much a child of the sixties. And as with many, of even the most thoughtful members of his generation, there is something puzzling around the core of this man. Since shedding its counterculture costume early in the seventies, the sixties generation has flown all over the political map in search of solid ground. Sure, Hope and Michael Steadman were a bit more liberal than their parents on lifestyle and environmental issues, though hardly more so on economic ones. They’ve wanted to do good, but more important they’ve wanted to do well. As Clinton’s own confused feelings regarding his (admirable) decision to participate in the anti-war movement indicate, his paradoxical political character was formed by the identity crisis of his generation.

Before dwelling on the depressing stuff, however, we should pause to appreciate the changes about to come our way. Compared to twelve years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the Clinton presidency will be to progressive politics what the sight of dry land was to the passengers on Noah’s Ark. No more Clarence Thomases, no more Dan Quayles, no more presidentially sanctioned attacks on single mothers, gays, feminists, poor people, and global-warming treaties. Progressives would be stupid and sectarian to dismiss the importance of these items. For all his weaknesses and ambiguities, Clinton is a decent fellow with a compassionate heart and killer political instincts – Jimmy Carter and that nasty rabbit all rolled into one. What’s more, in Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, and Derek Shearer, the president-elect has the sharpest and most progressive economic brain trust since FDR.

Stephanopoulos says that the president-elect’s most admirable character trait is the ability to grow – a capacity that Stephanopoulos translates into a potential for greatness. Robert Reich, who attended Oxford with Clinton and may be his closest intellectual confidant (save Hillary), speaks passionately about his friend’s “amazing stamina” and “powerful willingness to take on the tough guys, so long as he understands the stakes.” The question for all of us, then, is: Does Bill Clinton understand the stakes?

Regarding America’s dire economic and social conditions at least, Clinton comes pretty close. Tutored by Reich, Shearer, and Magaziner, Clinton has developed an impressive grasp of our fundamental weaknesses and come up with what is essentially a three-word solution: training, education, investment – and don’t forget about health care. (Okay, nine words.) Because almost all forms of social progress will depend on our ability to improve productivity, and because that ability, in turn, depends on the quality of our work force and infrastructure, these are almost certainly the right words. Our choice, as the president-elect aptly stated during the campaign, is between working to create “a high-growth, smart-work, high-wage economy or [continuing to drift into a low-growth, hard-work, low-wage future.” Of all the crimes that Reagan and Bush committed against the country’s future, their refusal to build toward a twenty-first-century work force has probably inflicted the most long-term damage. Clinton’s program should have positive implications for almost every area of our domestic blight.

In terms of social policy, moreover, Clinton represents the best of his generation. Educated, invested in and trained by Hillary, the president-elect is an honest feminist and a committed supporter of gay rights. While conservative on some issues, he has a record on race relations that is brave and impressive. He even betrays some understanding of the destructive roles that class prejudice and stratification have played in American life, ideas that have been stricken from our political discourse as if by royal decree. Clinton’s America also is mercifully untouched by the recent balkanization of leftist political thinking, which encourages aggrieved groups to “accentuate the tribalist,” in Todd Gitlin’s phrase, and to sacrifice the goal of an inclusive, participatory, civic culture. If Clinton shows the courage of his convictions on these issues and uses the presidency as a bully pulpit to bring out the best in civic life, then perhaps it will be possible to undo some of the destructive legacy of the Reagan-Bush years and begin rebuilding our parks, our schools, our communities, and even our brain-dead political culture.

But domestic policy is no longer even half the story. It has become a cliche to observe that foreign policy is domestic policy and that the two have become inseparable, but it is and they have. Clinton’s understanding of the U.S. role in the New World Order is appropriately focused on the foundation of a strong economy. As the president-elect explained in his most serious campaign address, “an anemic, debt-laden economy; the developed world’s highest rates of crime and poverty; an archaic education system; decaying roads, ports, and cities – all of these undermine our diplomacy, make it harder for us to secure favorable trade agreements, and compromise our ability to finance essential military actions.” So far, so good.

Unfortunately, Clinton then touted unilateral U.S. military power as the cornerstone of the nation’s security and role in the world. “While the Soviet Union is gone,” he warned, “a president must still be ready to defy and to defeat those who threaten us…. As we scale down our military, we must also keep up our guard.” Clinton then detailed his plans to scale back the power and influence of the U.S. military, but to expand it into new areas and weapons systems, including some so wasteful that not even the Bush administration could justify them. Finally, he worried that in the post-cold-war future the military- industrial complex might not be strong and influential enough to survive. Under the Bush-Quayle administration, he lamented, we were “letting major production lines go cold, for everything from tanks to planes to submarines.”

The danger regarding Clinton’s foreign policy is not, as with his economic policy, that the president-elect may ignore his own sound instincts, forego the advice of his progressive advisers, and go back on the promises he has made; rather, it is that he will do exactly what he says he will. He will follow the advice of his present advisers and will remain, on foreign-policy issues, in the bosom of the Washington establishment. Clinton’s instincts and the recorded statements of his primary advisers are in full agreement with the received wisdom of the establishment and its punditocratic mouthpiece regarding the U.S. role in the new world. It is unfortunately similar to our role in the old world, albeit with fewer commies. A priority of the Clinton crowd will be the search for a compelling rationale to convince Americans that a commie-less world still requires a global military infrastructure along with the tremendous economic burden necessary to support it.

Why is Bill Clinton focused on maintaining (and in some cases, expanding) our global military commitments when our economy is starving? The reason says less about the politics of the country as a whole than it does about the peculiar insider culture of Washington. For apart from its involvement in questions of war and peace (when Americans almost always support their president, anyway), the public plays almost no role in the articulation or implementation of foreign policy. Baghdad, Bosnia, GATT, and SDI are the exclusive provinces of the insiders. And they like it that way.

Just blocks from the Capitol, the city’s black majority live in a ghetto that contains every horror story of contemporary America. Crack dens, high-school gunfights, AIDS-stricken prostitutes, and the like are matters not just of tabloid TV but of day-to-day life. The wealthy whites who make up the Washington establishment, on the other hand, live in safe neighborhoods with good schools and have plenty of health-care coverage and an extra room for the maid. Their biggest problem in life, according to a magazine survey, is traffic. Fully protected from the struggles of everyday living, these lawyers, bureaucrats, professors, and think-tank specialists are free to devote themselves to matters more exciting (and less intractable) than the destruction of our cities. They live less in Washington itself than in a cosmopolitan communications center that floats somewhere above Washington, a place closer to Bonnor Baghdad than to the District of Columbia. And just as they take poverty and violent crime to be a given in the latter, so too they assume the need for a U.S. military role in the former.

Decades of cold-war ideology have left an indelible imprint on Washington’s thought patterns. America is a superpower, goes the logic; hence, a global disturbance anywhere requires an immediate, unambiguous U.S. military response. Anything less would constitute a “failure of will,” which would demoralize our allies and encourage evil madmen to create anarchy the world over.

What debate there is on foreign policy within the establishment breaks along the following fault lines:

1. The “Honest Broker” school. In the absence of a credible enemy, and amid unavoidable signs of our economic decline, the establishment figures in this school have come to believe that the United States needs a respite from its global police beat. They see the nation as the first among equals, still capable of doing anything though no longer able to do everything. Whenever possible, they argue, Washington should seek to solve international problems through the United Nations collectively and cooperatively. A move in this direction would free limited resources for investment in a peace dividend – the Clinton campaign calls for $60 billion less in military spending over the next four years than the Bush plan did – but would retain between 80 and 90 percent of our cold-war military infrastructure. This view was endorsed most significantly by a panel of former (and future) honchos assembled by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace under the auspices of former Kissinger aide and ambassador to China, Winston Lord. The Clinton aides who can most easily be identified with this view are Anthony Lake, Warren Christopher, Lee Hamilton, and Richard Holbrooke; excluding Hamilton, all held prominent positions in the Carter administration under its dovish secretary of state, Cyrus Vance.

2. The “Democratist” school. Democratic hawks and Reaganera neoconservatives accept many of the assumptions of the Honest Broker school but feel either personally or politically uncomfortable without an ideological crusade upon which to ground U.S. policies. The crusade they have chosen is “democracy,” though it is frequently unclear just what is meant by the term and where it should apply. (In Kuwait, we fought to restore autocracy. in Algeria, we cheered democracy’s destruction; in Haiti, we simply averted our eyes.) The doctrine’s most vocal exponent has been Stephen Solarz, the forcibly retired Democratic congressman, who is certain to play a role in shaping Clinton’s foreign policy. Solarz argues that “the promotion of democracy where despotism still prevails is not only a reflection of American values, but also a requirement of American interests.” Like Solarz, who might fairly be termed a left-wing neocon, centrist neocons have largely backed Clinton, owing to what they deem to be Bush’s insufficient commitment to an activist, ideological foreign policy. In pro-Clinton ads bearing the names of such prominent Reagan-era hawks as Paul Nitze, Samuel Huntington, Richard Schifter, Penn Kemble, Robert Leiken, Edward Luttwak, R. James Woolsey, Martin Peretz, and Joshua Muravchik, among the issues stressed were Clinton’s willingness to “take the lead in urging international action – including, if necessary, the use of U.S. air and naval forces” in Bosnia – and to “resist those at home – and in his own party – who propose reckless cuts in our national defense capabilities.” Finally, and always crucial to the neocons, was the Clinton position on the Middle East, which largely endorsed the Shamir government’s desire for housing loan guarantees without any requisite freeze on Israeli settlement activity. Overall, most of these neocons provide only the second tier of Clinton’s foreign-policy advisers, though they are clearly in the front rank of Albert Gore’s. Because Clinton is expected to rely heavily on Gore regarding foreign and military issues, however, some of this group’s views will end up outranking those of opponents. The punditocracy, which creates the context within which all insider debate takes place, is also deeply invested in the democracy crusade, so the pressure on Clinton to take up this particular cudgel could prove irresistible.

3. The “Kissingerians.” The third division within the foreign-policy elite looks contemptuously at the other two as the captives of an ahistorical, hopelessly naive vision. The Honest Brokers suffer from a fear of force, and the Democratist school wants to waste our resources by worrying about places that don’t really matter, places like Albania or Burkina Faso that have, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, “fallen out of history.” In the Kissingerians’ view, very little has changed since the cold war, which itself was little more than traditional great- power – national-interest politics overlaid with the remnants of failed messianic ideologies. The demise of the Soviet Union makes Moscow only nominally less dangerous. Russia has been seeking to expand for more than two hundred years and will continue to do so, whether it is communist or capitalist, democratic or oligarchic. Japan and Germany, while currently allies, could turn out to be our adversaries again, which is why we cannot afford to alienate China, despite its human-rights abuses. The UN, though a pleasant place to while away an afternoon, is useful only, as Fukuyama puts it, as an “instrument of American unilateralism, and indeed … the primary mechanism through which that unilateralism will be exercised in the future.” This view sees almost no opportunity for military reductions, since the ever-shifting pattern of alliances and interests makes it impossible to determine just who will be friend and who foe in the future.

While no Clinton adviser easily fits this category, former Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum may be the most sympathetic. Regardless of their influence within Clinton’s camp, the Kissingerians will remain a strong establishment current – and will inform sophisticated criticism of Clinton in Congress and in the punditocracy. Hard-liner Michael Lind, writing in the New Republic, shot the tough-guy argument across Clinton’s bow, two months before the election. Lind exclaimed that Clinton’s meager cuts in military spending coupled with an eagerness to integrate gays into the military could give the Republicans a terrific campaign issue in 1996: He’s not just cutting the military back, he’s destroying it!”

Clinton’s problem is that no matter which of these schools he ends up endorsing, none will allow him to focus sufficient attention on our internal problems to begin to reverse our economic decline. All three schools direct themselves to foreign-policy questions that are ultimately peripheral to the conditions destroying our society. Even the Honest Broker school, morally and pragmatically the most attractive of the establishment options, fails to draw the intimate connection between our military obsession and our domestic decay. This obsession with military power brings with it not only the crippling economic burden of a massive, unproductive military-industrial complex, but also a constant vulnerability to the whims of foreign dictators and warring ethnic groups, which distracts the nation from the core problems of its internal decay. Furthermore, as long as we continue to feed the military-industrial complex, there will be pressure on Washington to encourage local arms races throughout the Third World – resulting in more poverty and starvation in these places and more power-hungry strongmen seeking to extend their rule by force. Until we break the back of this sector of the economy, we will continually be forced to arm ourselves, as we did against Saddam Hussein, to destroy foreign Frankensteins that we have helped create. Sustained economic recovery is all but impossible in so unstable a political atmosphere.

What I am proposing is essentially a revolution in the way this country and its president view our role in the world. But it is a decidedly minor revolution compared to those the world has witnessed over the last five years, and one that the American people seem more than willing to support. The problem, once again, is that however harmful our foreign policy may be to the economic security of most Americans, the public is given virtually no say in its formation. The president-elect, moreover, seems, at present, distinctly unimpressed with these arguments.

A southerner who is inexperienced in foreign policy and perhaps a bit defensive about his lack of military service, Clinton is temperamentally, politically, and intellectually uncomfortable with asking the United States to forego what we have been taught are the advantages of being the world’s strongest military power. Furthermore, Clinton, who grew up fatherless, appears to have a powerful need to win the confidence and approval of those around him – particularly those Ivy League types who people the punditocracy and other establishment institutions. The idea that this conservative southern consensus-politician would come to power only to turn on the Washington Post editorial board, Wall Street, and the Council on Foreign Relations seems, at least at first blush, ridiculous.

But consider the alternative. Clinton was elected on the basis of his promise to rebuild the economy and reverse our economic decline, period. If he fails to do this in his first term, his presidency will be deemed a failure and Jack Kemp could be sitting in his seat in 1996. Yet all the economic innovations dreamed of in Clinton’s plan are hopeless without a foreign-policy strategy that frees us from the economic and intellectual constraints of the cold-war national- security state. Time is short. We are a notoriously impatient people, and Clinton cannot fully institute his economic program until fiscal year 1995. Many aspects of that program, like education and nutrition spending for children, will not have any perceptible effect on the economy for perhaps a decade. Meanwhile, U.S. incomes will fall or remain stagnant, as jobs and capital continue to flee our shores in search of cheaper workers and weaker environmental and safety standards.

At some point, perhaps during his second or third year, with our manufacturing base continuing to disintegrate and the passion and excitement of his first hundred days already dissipated, Clinton will finally be forced to define, for himself, for his party, and perhaps for his generation, the true character of his political idealism. Is Clinton’s America one that travels the globe, billy club in one hand, tin cup in the other, fighting foreign monsters as it continues to decline at home? Or is it a nation of decent schools, safe communities, and affordable health care, with a regained sense of both common sacrifice and public confidence?

Everything about Bill Clinton’s history and character tells us that he is one of the most ambitious men of his generation. In the past, his ambitions have been channeled toward earning the approval of the voters and those in established power. Eventually, he will have to make his choice. To take on the punditocracy and explain forcefully that his America will no longer put the interests of an imperial foreign policy before those of rebuilding our cities, our schools, and our neighborhoods – that would be an act of almost existential audacity, unprecedented not only in Clinton’s political career, but in those histories of all but the greatest statesmen of the century.

Churchill rose to an occasion just like this one. So did Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The greatness of these leaders was in many respects a reflection of the extraordinary moments of their rule. The United States today stands at such a moment. On the verge of irreversible decline, we retain only the skeleton of what once was the world’s most productive and progressive economy. But while the nation’s leadership class remains mired in an outmoded worldview, the nation’s people have recognized this crisis for what it is: an economic Dunkirk, a sociopolitical Stalingrad. “Americans,” observes pollster Daniel Yankelovich, “have grown obsessed with the economy. . . . The lack of responsiveness by leadership has created a crisis of legitimacy.” For Clinton to restore Americans’ faith in themselves and in their political system, he will need to define his own political identity in a way that takes him over the heads of our country’s foreign-policy elite in support of a program that will substantially improve the lives of the great mass of angry and confused Americans. This will do more than save the nation’s future; it will also ensure that Clinton gets to keep his new job. Doing good while doing well. By facing down the foreign-policy establishment and forcing the nation to focus its energies on reversing our economic decline and social decay, Bill Clinton can win the ultimate sixties victory.

Eric Alterman, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, is the author of Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics (HarperCollins, 1992). He will be writing a regular column for Mother Jones on “Fashion Statements,” a guide to the intellectual currents in Clinton’s Washington. The Florence and John Schumann Foundation provided support for this article.


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