by Mindy Clegg
In the 1990s, many Republicans fell victim to Clinton derangement syndrome. Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich built a successful career out of this syndrome. The anti-Clinton antipathy had its adherents on the left, too, but for far more reasonable objections grounded in real policy differences. The Clinton administration in the US pioneered the pro-business, neo-liberalism of third way Democratic politics that continues to haunt the party to this day. Despite this, the far right wing of the GOP (now its core) has made the Clintons into Marxist monsters despite a lack of evidence to support this claim. Donald Trump benefited from the irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton in 2016 (and we’ve all been the worse off for it). She carried the blame for some of the unhappy outcomes of her husband’s administration. In the domestic sphere, we have seen a push further right on social and economic issues. The Clinton foreign policy has largely been rejected, too, as it was focused on multilaterialism and a continuation of George HW Bush’s New World Order concept. The Clinton foreign policy was built on an optimism that America need not do much as the ultimate victor of the Cold War. If the past 22 years have been dominated by terrorism, entrenchment of neo-liberalism (and resistance to it), and subsequent economic instability, the 1990s were a time of uncertainty but also hope that most of our international problems were solved. That turned out to be a false hope.
Many people believe—sans evidence—that Bill Clinton’s administration pursued a far left agenda, an article of faith in the Culture Wars. At Buzzfeed, Alessa Dominquez argued that the culture wars aren’t “real” in sense of having a two-way conflict. Rather, demands for greater rights in public life and for more accurate depictions in the media by historically marginalized groups in American life are often purposefully misconstrued as an attack on “traditional” Americans (meaning white, middle class, Christian, especially men). In schools, the teaching of accurate history with regards to race and the push for greater inclusion of LGBQT+ youths have been met with not just outright hostility, but in some cases threats of violence. Although not always mentioned, this reaction grew out of years of attacks on the supposedly ultra-far left couple. There is little to support for that notion that Bill Clinton’s administration aimed to dismantle “traditional” family structures (traditional since the 1950s, maybe). But the right wing of the GOP needed a scapegoat to deflect from their lack of constructive policy positions outside of tax cuts and white grievance politics. Despite claims to the contrary, the Clinton administration consistently embraced the hard middle. From the mid-90s, as historian Steve Gillon argued, compromise became anathema to the GOP’s goal of complete and total victory. That it excited the base and drove contributions helped make this their central strategy. That it excited the base and drove contributions helped make this their central strategy. Such political machinations opened the door for a candidate like Trump. A whole generation of Republican partisans grew up with scorched-earth rhetoric in their politics. Trump capitalized on the already divisive culture wars, bringing in much more explicitly white supremacist threads. This has opened up a pathway to authoritarianism as Jason Stanley recently argued.
Most focus on the domestic sphere when discussing the extreme right wing reaction to the Clinton administration. We can draw a straight line from Gingrich’s language that demonized the Clintons as far left and the “lock her up” chanting at former President Trump’s rallies (a reference to Hillary Clinton’s supposed corruption as First Lady and then as a politician in her own right). But the Clinton administration in the 1990s did not promote far left policies and were likely no more corruption than their contemporaries. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell turned out to be a step backwards for gay rights in the US military. Additionally, the administration’s focus on crime rates and the promotion of the super-predator narrative helped drive the rise of the massive prison-industrial complex which we’re still grappling with today. President Clinton’s administration also downplayed their pro-choice position, using the slogan “safe, legal, and rare,” even as Clinton did have a solid record of promoting access to reproductive care. The Clinton administration also tracked right on economic issues. They supported Republican-led efforts to reform welfare benefits and pushed for free trade policies with our closest neighbors in the NAFTA treaty, widely opposed by labor unions. Because of these and other policies many on the left have strongly critiqued third way Democratic politics. Historians like Immanuel Wallerstein argued that President Clinton’s policies unleashed the destructive power of neo-liberalism by helping to reinforce a race to the bottom and facilitating a new wave of off-shoring. In the face of this criticism, Hillary Clinton tracked left for her own presidential runs, but she still rests solidly in the middle. But the myth that Bill and Hillary Clinton are far to the left persists.
But how about on foreign policy? What impact did the first full administration after the fall of the Berlin Wall have on the post-Cold War world? President Clinton inherited a hopeful, yet fluid situation in world politics. Not long before he won the presidency, the Soviet Union dissolved. New governments were forming across Eastern Europe and new members were looking join both NATO and the EU. But all was not well in world affairs, either. Yugoslavia descended into a series of protracted and genocidal conflicts. Clinton also inherited the US-led intervention in the Somali civil war from the previous administration of George HW Bush. Acts of terrorism (both domestic and abroad) grew in intensity. The irregular conflict in Northern Ireland continued, as did tensions in the Middle East. The Rwandian genocide also happened during the Clinton years with many criticizing the administrations actions as these acts of genocide unfolded. Perhaps these struggles and the fluidity of the situation drove President Clinton to try for the role of a peacemaker during his presidency. His diplomatic initiatives appeared successful on the surface, but some of that does not hold up entirely under a harsh light.
Three particular initiatives that the Clinton administration involved itself during the 1990s illustrate the level of hope of the era and the missed opportunities to remake the world. First, was the now-failed Oslo accords that hammered out a path for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1991, the US and Soviet Union along with the government of Spain sought to revive the peace process in the Middle East at a conference in Madrid. This began after the first Gulf War, where President Bush attempted to spend America’s political capital from that victory on the Middle East peace effort. Little came of it, except promises for bi and multi-lateral negotiations later, taken up by the government of Yithzak Rabin in 1991. But scholars argued that the “symbolic importance” of the Madrid talks mattered, opening up the possibility of further peace initiatives.1 It led directly to the Oslo Accords, secret negotiations overseen by representatives of Norway between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The American government only got involved at the later stages and ended up with little ability to put pressure on either side, according to the State Department’s own website. Once they did—such as their attempt to mediate between Israel and Syria over Golan—things quickly ran aground. At the time, most agreed that the signing of the original accords between the Rabin and Yassar Arafat represented progress as both sides agreed to recognize the other. The negotiations were really a collective effort of the international community that the Americans only swooped in to claim later. Some point to the Clinton administrations support of successively hard line Israeli governments as undermining any successes for Oslo. Even so, there was a real moment of hope for a true peace in a troubled region.
The Clinton administration had to deal with the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s. The Dayton Accords ended the genocidal conflict in Bosnia and created the structure of the modern Bosnia and Herzegovina state. The agreement balanced power between the ethnic groups in the small Balkan country. The assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke held the first negotiations in regional capitals, with the final discussions being held on a US military base in Ohio. The initial agreement brought praise for bringing the conflict to a conclusion.2 But many have since noted real problems of the framework. The end of 2021 saw a rise in tensions in Bosnia, as the Bosniak Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatened to drop out of the government structure created by the Dayton Accords.
The last major diplomatic victory of the era was made in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (also known as the Belfast Agreement) mostly ended the decades-long irregular conflict there. This particular piece of diplomacy has proven to be the most long-lasting and robust agreement of the Clinton era. The structure gave Northern Ireland greater ties to the Republic of Ireland while re-configuring the relationship between the UK and the Republic. The current American President Joe Biden was among a group of senators pushing for greater American involvement in trying to solve the Troubles since the 1980s. As head of the Judiciary committee, he used his influence to push the Clinton administration to embrace the process in the late 1990s. The negotiations were primarily between the British government, the Unionists, the Republicans, and the Republic of Ireland, beginning with a ceasefire in 1994. President Clinton sent Senator George Mitchell to chair the discussions. Labour came into power in the UK in 1997, things hit high gear, according to The Independent. This extraordinary agreement gave a way forward in changing circumstances—while a majority of citizens of Northern Ireland in 1998 did not want to join the Republic of Ireland, if at some point in the future, people changed their minds, a vote can be held that the UK promised to honor. There continue to be fears that Brexit could end Good Friday, but so far things appear to be holding.
There is little doubt that Clinton administration hoped to build a freer, more peaceful, and more equitable planet in the wake of the seismic changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the policies they inherited and the way in which they constantly sought compromise on key issues for Democratic voters eventually undid that hope by the early 2000s. Following along with the new found logic of the post-Cold War mindset, Bill Clinton led an administration that pursued that course via a neo-liberal agenda that assumed the end of Soviet Empire meant a full vindication for a market-centric society. Their approach fully ignored the still existing contradictions in American life on the axes of class, race, and gender. The over-dependence on the markets to solve America’s internal problems mirrored their lack of willingness to address the roots of various problems in the foreign policy sphere. Good Friday shows us that they could have worked with a deeper focus on the other seemingly intractable conflicts. The Clinton administration coasted on the good will built up by the end of the Cold War. In a fit of “end of history” optimism promoted by Francis Fukuyama in 1989, they assumed that there really was no alternative to capitalism. But I’m reminded of the short story The Space Traders by the late professor Derrick Bell, which called that narrative of inexorable progress into question on the issue of American racism. The American attempt to remake the world in our image during the Clinton era had the same blindness to the facts on the ground. By not digging into the real causes of conflict, the administration lost a real opportunity to change the world into a more sustainable, peaceful place. We live with those consequences today.
1 Harms, G., Ferry, T. (2005), The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction, Canada: Pluto Press, p. 153.
2 Howard M. Hensel (2017). Sovereignty and the Global Community: The Quest for Order in the International System. Taylor & Francis. p. 208.