by James Carden
Tuesday, 12
April 2022
Response
14:15

Bill Clinton re-writes history in The Atlantic

The former president made some bold claims about his decision to expand NATO
by James Carden
Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in New York. Credit: Getty

Bill Clinton might have saved those who read his self-justifying Atlantic magazine essay defending his decision to expand NATO a lot of time by simply writing the following: “The late Madeleine Albright said it was a good idea, so I did it.”

Clinton’s essay has all the hallmarks of what we’ve come to expect from a Clinton Family production: self-exoneration, selective memory, and a blatant disregard for the audience’s intelligence.

Further still, there are a number of faulty assumptions which underlie Mr. Clinton’s historic recreation of the 1990s. The former president writes:

If Russia stayed on a path toward democracy and cooperation, we would all be together in meeting the security challenges of our time: terrorism; ethnic, religious, and other tribal conflicts; and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons
- Bill Clinton, Atlantic

Here Clinton is espousing a version of the ‘Democratic Peace Theory’, the idea, in short, that democracies rarely engage in conflict with other democracies. The problem with the theory is that it has little bearing on how states actually act. After all, it was the revanchist Putin who was the first foreign leader to call and offer support to George W Bush on 9/11; it was Putin’s Russia who worked to rid Syria of its vast stockpiles of chemical weapons in 2013; it was the US, not Putin’s Russia, that gutted the bilateral nuclear arms control regime over the past 20 years. Whether Russia was a “democracy” or not is irrelevant to these issues.

The narrative Clinton constructs here also conveniently sets things up in his favour: if NATO expands and Russia peacefully acquiesces, then it will be seen as a success and expansion is justified. If NATO expands and Russia reacts in a threatening way (as it is now), NATO expansion can also be justified. Heads I win, tails you lose.

After briefly noting that there was quite a lot of opposition among serious scholars of Russia such as George F. Kennan, Mr. Clinton goes on to note that:

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, tweeted in December 2021, “It wasn’t NATO seeking to go East, it was former Soviet satellites and republics wishing to go West.”
- Bill Clinton, Atlantic

This is true but irrelevant. As my late friend and mentor Stephen F. Cohen liked to say, “NATO isn’t the AARP, it’s a military alliance, you can’t just sign up for it because you feel like it.” So what then was Mr. Clinton’s actual motive? Was it, as he assures us, to ensure the democratisation of Eastern Europe? Was it to strengthen the NATO alliance should Russia turn its back on democracy? No: the real motive was, well, votes.

Here is former US ambassador to the USSR (1987-1991) Jack F. Matlock in an interview earlier this year with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies:

…The real reason that Clinton went for it was domestic politics. I testified in Congress against NATO expansion, saying that it would be a great mistake…when I came out of that testimony, a couple of people who were observing said, “Jack, why are you fighting against this?” And I said, “Because I think it’s a bad idea.” They said, “Look, Clinton wants to get reelected. He needs Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois; they all have a very strong East European [base]…” Many of these [Eastern Europeans] had become Reagan Democrats on East-West issues. They’re insisting that the Ukraine [NATO] expand to include Poland and eventually Ukraine. So, Clinton needs those to get reelected.”
- Jack F. Matlock

As we have come to expect of decisions the Clintons have made over the 30 years they have been on the national political scene, it comes down to self, more than national, interest. The decision to expand NATO was guided as much by Mr. Clinton’s drive to win the 1996 election as by lofty notions of US national security — he left that part out of his Atlantic essay.

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John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

“The narrative Clinton constructs here also conveniently sets things up in his favour: if NATO expands and Russia peacefully acquiesces, then it will be seen as a success and expansion is justified. If NATO expands and Russia reacts in a threatening way (as it is now), NATO expansion can also be justified. Heads I win, tails you lose.”

I’m a belated fan of George Kennan too and I do accept that the 1990s NATO expansion was carried out for the wrong reasons and in addition broke a key pledge made to Russia by the Western powers at the time.

However, I cannot go as far as this article simplistically argues, because no matter what you say, it matters what the people of NATO member nations actually want. They do not want to be governed by Russia, and they do not want to be non-nuclear armed as neighbours of Russia. This might become highly inconvenient for the USA, UK, France and Germany etc in due course if the Article 5 principle comes under pressure, which it well might: at that point, George Kennan’s growing reputation as a geopolitical prophet will be written in stone from now on.

But that does not make the 1990’s NATO expansion a bad idea on the same moral spectrum as would be the deliberate decision to leave Eastern Europe at the mercy of a revanchist Russia, and the difference is simply down to how the democratic will in Eastern Europe views either prospect. In other words, the West might pay a high price for doing what is on balance the right thing, but that doesn’t make it any less right.
The article claims that this true but irrelevant, but frankly I simply can’t agree. And as for the motivation of Bill Clinton to win votes domestically by agreeing to NATO expansion, well, this does rather come back to the issue of democratic consent. Sure, the voters in question were American immigrants from Eastern Europe as opposed to the people actually there, but unless we’re claiming, too, that these voters were not representative of all their erstwhile countrymen at home, it doesn’t matter. Bill Clinton’s done lots I don’t like, but winning an election by giving people what they want isn’t exactly high up the list of reasons to condemn him.
Of course I could be wrong and maybe NATO is just as bad as Russia really: if anyone has evidence that the eastern expansion of NATO involved western soldiers executing civilians and throwing them into mass graves, do please let me know.

Last edited 2 months ago by John Riordan
William Cable
William Cable
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

A lot of strawman I this reply. The author didn’t say that NATO was as bad as Russia or that they should have been left to the mercy of Russia, just that NATO expansion was not the right way to deal with it. One might also argue that treating Russia as an irredeemable enemy from the 90s onwards became a self fulfilling prophecy. Combine that with Clinton’s eager support of Yeltsin rigging elections and allowing oligarchs and Western corporations to ransack the Russian economy and you have pretty fertile soil for something like Putinism to grow

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 months ago
Reply to  William Cable

Russia WASN’T treated as an irredeemable enemy. I remember very well. It was expected to join the rest of the world as a market-oriented democracy. It didn’t, but fell apart, as gangsters appropriated the outgoing state’s assets. I’m not sure what the West could have done, but the end result was the reemergence of the KGB, no doubt because of expertise suited to the conditions.
The end result was the climb to power of Putin, who is no democrat, and has steadily acquired control. Repressive regimes make use of patriotism, and find it useful to identify enemies. It’s such a well-worn process.
And the reacquisition of territories which went their own way suits him, because it adds to the nation’s power and reinforces that patriotic fervour which maintains his grip. (It also adds opportunities for more wealth appropriation.)
All this stuff about it being Clinton’s fault, or the USA’s electoral situation, or that it was unwise because some people warned against it, or threatened Russia etc. is what is irrelevant. It’s what’s happened within Russia which is relevant, and the external facts are relevant only because they can be exploited.
Of course some nations such as Poland wanted to join NATO; they know better than Carden, Clinton, or the rest of what their huge neighbour is capable.
A great friend of mine who was born and raised in Lvov was in Austria in 1939, and eventually escaped to Britain, but his sister and mother were taken by the NKVD. They were separated, and the sister released after about two years in Siberia, mentally damaged, but he never discovered what happened to his mother. Regrettably, he didn’t live to see 1989, but I’m certain he would have been desperate for Poland to join NATO. And yes, it was wise to do so, and if it’s threatening to Putin, perhaps insufficiently.
And given that Katyn was within living memory, should we be surprised at recent revelations?
How Putin must have laughed at the ‘peace dividend’, while the West helped him to build gas and oil extraction infrastructure, and the dividend from the latter provided investment for warfare.

Last edited 2 months ago by Colin Elliott
Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Great post.
I despair when people claim that what happens in Ukraine is all fault of NATO expansion, promises made to Ukraine about EU membership etc.
Completely disregarding the history of Russia and centuries of its genocidal Imperialism.
No one forced Russia to take turn they did in 1990.
What happened then was exactly what anyone with knowledge of Russia history would predict.
Somehow countries like Poland, Czechia and Baltic States managed transition to democracy and capitalist economy.
With some problems, but they did.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Bravo!
The problem with people pushing the ‘we should not have provoked Russia by expanding NATO’ line is that they never make it clear what should have been done instead, or how the world would have looked if we had done it.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The only problem with your post is the claim that Russia was promised that NATO will not expand.
There was nothing agreed in writing unlike Ribentrop Molotov pact to dismember Eastern Europe.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 months ago

I am more interested in the role NATO can play than the role Bill Clinton did play. There are two aspects to NATO.

  1. An alliance for mutual defence so that collectively you are bigger and less likely to be attacked.
  2. A forum for peace where you also talk openly to each other to spell out that you are resolute in defence but also not aggressive.

What NATO should not be doing is:

  1. Creating an enemy.
  2. Have its hands tied because it is frightened of a nuclear war.

The cold war is not a good reference point because it had two opposed sides with very different ideologies. The population of Russia want what the West wants – economic growth.
I thought at the time, and still think, that Biden encouraged Putin to act now by stating NATO would not intervene. Biden should have followed Bush’s approach in his statement on 13 Aug 2008 saying the US military would start delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia, which seems to have deterred Putin at the time.
So should NATO build bridges with Putin or continue to act scared?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Hit the nail on the head with that comment. Smile graciously and carry a big stick are always the fundamentals of a strong foreign policy. And be generous, but very carefully targeted, with the foreign aid

Last edited 2 months ago by JR Stoker
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 months ago

Nothing new here. You should see the remnants of the Clinton Administration attempt to rewrite the history on NAFTA.

Last edited 2 months ago by Matt Hindman
Bill Hartree
Bill Hartree
2 months ago

Blimey, Putin being seen as a peacemaker in Syria!

Actually, he bombed the crap out of large tracts of that country to prop up Assad, then pissed off leaving much of the place in ruins. The author ought to read about his destruction of the beautiful city of Aleppo. One of the results was the huge migration of Syrian refugees in 2016, exploited by Putin fan Nigel Farage.

Having got away with this atrocity, Putin’s doing the same in Ukraine,

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 months ago

Clinton Inc does nothing except out of self interest.