Presidential Power - The indispensable nation and president?



During his run for the presidency, William Jefferson Clinton campaigned on a domestic program. When he did refer to foreign affairs, he tried to sound tougher than Bush. For instance, Clinton favored forcible intervention in the Bosnian civil war to punish aggressive Serbs. As president, his first major foreign policy decision was on the peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Initially, Clinton anticipated no difficulties because he planned gradually to withdraw U.S. troops and turn over the operation to the United Nations. When clan warriors killed Pakistani peacekeepers and wounded American soldiers, that goal changed. The president authorized U.S. troops to use force against what he called "two-bit" terrorists. When Somalis killed eighteen Americans and wounded seventy-four, Clinton ordered 5,000 more troops, heavy armor, and additional warships to Somalia. What had started as a humanitarian mission took on the coloring of a military occupation. This change alarmed many in Congress. Some talked of placing restrictions on how the president could deploy the armed forces. As had predecessors in comparable circumstances, Clinton contended questionably that the executive possessed the ultimate authority on the use of troops. Finally, without relinquishing this claim but in reaction to the criticism, he withdrew the forces from Somalia.

During this episode, the president also flexed muscle in the Middle East. He learned of an alleged plot to assassinate George Bush while the former president was visiting Kuwait in April 1993. The CIA attributed this conspiracy to Saddam Hussein. Denouncing it as "an attack against our country and against all Americans," Clinton on 26 June ordered a missile attack on battered Baghdad. Constitutional lawyers commented that "calling the U.S. bombing of Iraq an act of selfdefense for an assassination plot that had been averted two months previously is quite a stretch." Other skeptics viewed this exercise in force as personal, or as countering a reputation for indecisiveness with an image of a strong, assertive leader. The tactic worked. According to polls, the public approved of the president's rash resort to force by a large margin.

Concurrently, Clinton plunged into another sticky minor foreign problem, this one involving corruption in Haiti and special-interest group politics in the United States. In a coup, militarists ejected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first elected president, from office. Various liberal groups, media pundits, and especially the congressional black caucus demanded that Clinton restore Aristide to power. The president agreed. He tightened sanctions against the island republic, ordered warships to patrol its waters, and placed troops on alert for a possible invasion. He justified his actions with what he designated as important national interests in Haiti, a need to protect American lives there, and an obligation to promote democracy. In Congress, dissenters came up with legislation to prevent Clinton from committing troops. He denounced the proposal as encroaching "on the President's foreign policy powers." Congress avoided a direct clash with a nonbinding resolution that opposed the executive actions. Involved legislators asked should a president act as a global gendarme with authority to intervene with force whenever dictators seize or hold power anywhere. Others perceived personal or domestic political considerations as motivating the president's determination to move on his own. Advisers admitted that in this manner Clinton would demonstrate "the president's decision making capability" and his firmness in using his foreign affairs power.

Clinton remained defiant, announcing that, like predecessors, he did not regard himself "constitutionally mandated" to obtain congressional approval before invading. He also repeated muddled justifications, such as a duty to secure the nation's borders and safeguard national security, though neither was threatened. At the last minute, in September 1994, he avoided another clash with Congress by accepting an arrangement that permitted the Haitian militarists to retreat peacefully and made a hostile invasion unnecessary. American troops then occupied the country and returned Aristide to power. Clinton boasted, "We celebrate the return of democracy," even though democracy had never flowered in Haiti. Two years later, the occupation officially ended without violent mishap. The administration touted it as a foreign policy triumph but others viewed it as a revival of big-stick paternalism. The intervention and $2.2 billion in aid produced neither democracy nor well-being. In Haiti viable politics and the economy crumbled.

Clinton also embroiled himself in controversy over brutal ethnic warfare in former Yugoslavia, expressing a desire to intervene for the laudable purpose of protecting human rights. "We have an interest," he said, "in standing up against the principle of ethnic cleansing." He intruded in a number of instances with food and medicine air drops for beleaguered Muslims in Bosnia, with deployment of a few hundred troops in Macedonia, and with bombings and other attacks on Serb forces. Finally, in a conference in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, Clinton brokered an end to the civil war in Bosnia. He considered the peace agreement a diplomatic triumph, but it had problems. The settlement called for deployment of 23,000 U.S. ground troops as part of a NATO peacekeeping mission. A majority in Congress and most Americans opposed the policing commitment. Regardless, Clinton deployed the troops, counting on the usual rally-round-the flag attitude of the public when soldiers were placed in harm's way. As aides admitted, the decision in an election year also had a political dimension. It could increase his stature as a bold leader. He had learned, a staffer asserted, "that foreign policy can help your image. It makes him look like a president." Ultimately, the Senate backed the troop commitment and, as anticipated, the public rallied behind the president.

Clinton also flexed muscle over an incident with Castro's Cuba and another with China over Taiwan, and continued to blast Iraq with missile attacks. In these crises the president portrayed himself as a global crusader committed to combating evil. At the start of his second term, he explained this concept as part of doing "what it takes to remain the indispensable nation…for another fifty years."

Two years later, on 7 August 1998, while Clinton was entangled in scandal over a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a young White House intern, terrorists bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Ten days later, he publicly admitted the sexual liaison and three days after that ordered missile attacks on suspected terrorists in Sudan and Afghanistan. Opponents accused him of using violence abroad to divert attention from a domestic problem. On 19 December, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and abuse of power related to the Lewinsky affair. On 12 February 1999, after a five-week trial, the Senate acquitted Clinton. A month later, when asked if he had damaged the Office of the President, Clinton responded, "I hope the presidency has not been harmed. I don't believe it has been."

Clinton continued to exercise his foreign relations power boldly, primarily against another international villain, Slobodan Milosevic, the hard-line president of what remained of Yugoslavia. Clinton accused him of brutal ethnic cleansing of Albanian residents in the Serb province of Kosovo and decided to employ force against him. Clinton explained this decision, as a skeptic pointed out, with an "orgy of analogy" that included an obligation to humanity to halt what he termed genocide, defend American interests, stop Serb aggression, and enforce democratic values. Critics asked, why the selective humanitarianism? Did not genocide in Rwanda, Chinese brutalities against Tibetans, Russian repression in Chechnya, ethnic horrors in the Sudan, and Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan call for comparable military intervention?

Regardless, on 24 March the United States, supported by eighteen other NATO countries that Clinton had persuaded to join him, launched an air war against Milosevic's Yugoslavia. Clinton and his aides avoided the word "war," describing the vast violence they unleashed with an impersonal euphemism, a campaign to "degrade" the enemy. In eleven weeks of war, or degrading, the NATO forces flew 37,000 sorties and dropped 23,614 bombs on Kosovo and other parts of Yugoslavia, most of them by American planes. The United Nations did not support the war, nor did many people even in NATO countries. Congress and the American public, though, as usual in the initial stages of hostilities, backed the executive but with less enthusiasm than in previous presidential wars.

With the rise of domestic opposition to the war, with its destruction of much of Serbia, Clinton resorted to the dubious contention that the executive as commander in chief needed no congressional declaration to fight a war. The House, mainly along party lines, voted against supporting him with a declaration of war, but it did not try to stop the hostilities. In addition, a bipartisan group of legislators filed suit seeking a ruling that the bombing violated the Constitution and laws such as the War Powers Resolution. Across the country a new antiwar movement began taking shape. Elsewhere, as in Japan, people viewed Clinton as an international bully.

On 10 June, before opposition to the war became full blown, it ended. The Serbs agreed to withdraw from Kosovo and to accept a NATO occupation of the province. Clinton then claimed another triumph for a presidential war. The victory proved tarnished when postwar investigators could produce no evidence of grand-scale genocidal Serb activities. Clinton had claimed that under Milosevic's orders, Serbs had slaughtered tens of thousand of Albanians. In addition, when Albanians returned to Kosovo, they carried out ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Gypsies.

In other instances, Clinton used his foreign affairs power constructively, notably through diplomacy to help control ethnic violence in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East and to save Mexico from bankruptcy with some $25 billion in loans. To the end of his presidency, he liked the taste of power that enabled him to influence events the world over and stuck to his self-assumed role, which he often denied, of global policeman. He left office, according to polls, with most Americans approving of his handling of foreign affairs.

In the 2000 election, foreign policy played a minor role, though the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, criticized morally based armed interventions. He preferred using force only where tangible, perceivable American interests were at stake. He won the presidency even though his Democratic opponent received more of the popular vote, despite ballot snafus in Florida, and by surviving various court challenges. In the crucial challenge, the Supreme Court awarded him the office on the basis of shared ideology. In the aftermath, academics and others contended that this outcome tarnished the presidency. As critics pointed out, Bush's awkward handling of foreign affairs during his first months in office indicated that this assessment had merit.

On 11 September 2001 this view of the presidency changed. Unknown Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes, smashed two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon, outside Washington, D.C., and crashed the fourth in a field in Pennsylvania. They killed an estimated seven thousand people. The disaster galvanized the nation, rallying the citizenry, as usual in foreign affairs crises, around the flag and behind the president.

Bush responded with incendiary rhetoric laced with references to war and by asking Congress for expanded power to combat terrorism "with all necessary and appropriate force." As had his predecessors, he claimed he already had the authority to initiate military action on his own but wanted a resolution of approval from the legislators to cement national unity. Polls indicated that more than 70 percent of the public supported his stance. Congress rushed to go along with the president's request. On 14 September, unanimously in the Senate and with only one dissenter in the House of Representatives, Congress voted approval for the president to strike at "nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks."

A few in Congress maintained that this resolution, unlike the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, did not give the president blanket authority to make war. In substance, though, it amounted to that, and Bush interpreted it that way. Five days later, speaking to Congress and to the nation via television, he announced "a war on terror," issuing an ultimatum to Afghanistan: deliver to the United States the prime suspects behind the attacks, especially Osama bin Laden, a shadowy anti-Western terrorist who had sanctuary in that country, or expect the consequences. Again, Bush's standing in the polls soared. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, refused surrender of bin Laden without, they said, seeing convincing evidence of his guilt.

Once more, despite the War Powers Act and post-Vietnam War concerns over untrammeled presidential war power, the public, Congress, and most media pundits eager for retaliation backed the use of military force virtually as the executive saw fit. Moreover, for the first time in the role of a warrior who spoke of involvement in "the first war of the twenty-first century," even to those who previously had belittled him, Bush appeared presidential.

This crisis reinforced what has been, virtually from the first presidency, a steady expansion of the executive power in foreign affairs at the expense of Congress. This happened often because of the force of strong executives' personalities and their thirst for power. It happened also because the American public and its elected representatives, initially at least, in times of foreign crises willingly put aside original intent in the war making power as the framers had embodied it in the Constitution. Again, in the September 2001 crisis, without hesitation, they shifted this ultimate power to one person—the president.



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