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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

1996 Election Freezes U.S. Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton has a new national security adviser, goes the latest Washington quip. His name is Jacques Chirac.


The new French president burst into the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations summit at Halifax like a gunman into a Wild West saloon, insisting on troops first and money later for Bosnia and daring anyone to challenge his new nuclear tests in the South Pacific.


Clinton meets later this week with his secretaries of defense, state and energy and with top military staff to decide whether the United States will follow the French example and resume nuclear tests, as a preliminary to negotiating a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.


The surprise is that this is even an issue, after Clinton's decision 18 months ago to continue with the moratorium on testing. His readiness to reconsider, and the growing likelihood that he will overrule his civilian advisers and accept the Pentagon's case for more testing, reflects the way that U.S. foreign policy has become subordinated to the president's re-election campaign.


The creeping retreat of the United States from its decades of global leadership is now being intensified by Clinton's focus on re-election. With $4 million already banked from a direct-mail appeal that went out in April, his bid starts this week with fund-raising rallies in Arkansas and New Jersey.


"The last thing the president wants is Republicans calling the generals up to congressional hearings to say that this country's nuclear arsenal is no longer safe," commented Jack Mendelsohn of the Arms Control Association.


So Chirac's bumptiousness is not unwelcome to a White House that wants the rest of the world to stay out of the U.S. headlines, because Clinton is highly reluctant to invest any of his remaining prestige in order to calm it.


Clinton's foreign policy for the remainder of his term has three priorities: to be seen as tough on trade with Japan and to achieve peace settlements in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The great ambition is to re-enact the Israel-Palestine handshake on the White House lawn with the Syrians, and then again with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and John Major.


Clinton's determination to allow only the most carefully staged foreign policy successes into the re-election process is, with budgetary squeezes, Republican grumpiness and an ungrateful world, producing a steady creep toward isolation.


These forces came together at the G-7 summit at Halifax. Clinton's insistence that "the United States can no longer be the world's lender of last resort" was based less on the plan to strengthen the International Monetary Fund's role in managing financial crises, than on the congressional battering Clinton took earlier this year from his attempt to bail out the Mexican economy.


The opinion polls and the talk shows encouraged rank and file Democrats and Republicans in Congress to defy their party leaders and reject Clinton's $40 billion rescue plan. Unable to rally American money, Clinton turned in desperation to the IMF.


Clinton's foreign policy can best be summed up by his wife's comment last week on teenage sex: "My theory is, don't do it before you're 21 -- and then don't tell me about it," said Hillary Clinton. Pending the next election, that is what Clinton wants from the world.