Merchants at Beijing's Hongqiao Market proudly display photos taken with President Bill Clinton during his trip to China. One jewelry saleswoman does not trumpet her merchandise when she spies American shoppers, but gestures instead to a prominent poster-size shot taken of her with the chief executive when he toured the market in 1998. Youthful by comparison to Chinese leaders, Mr. Clinton was a sensation during his nine-day visit, sidling up to China's entrepreneurial masses with the grip and grin that back home became shopworn long ago.
In America, the China trip was a sensation of a different sort. It prompted a General Accounting Office inquiry after Republicans in Congress complained that the president's overseas excursions were turning into champagne travel on the taxpayers' budget. The China trip cost taxpayers $19 million and included over 500 U.S. government officials, in addition to private business leaders. Altogether the GAO investigation looked at three 1998 trips by Mr. Clinton-to China, South America, and Africa-and found that the president spent $72 million. The tab did not include security expenses, both Secret Service and military, because those figures are classified.
To Chile, Mr. Clinton ferried 592 people; 109 were White House employees. For the 12-day tour of Africa, 1,300 people escorted the president. Sixteen members of Congress and 205 White House employees were in that number. Not since Teddy Roosevelt took nine dozen porters on safari in Kenya (just after leaving office) has an American president been so well attended. According to records kept by the State Department, Mr. Clinton as of June 2000 logged 212 days overseas during his two terms. President Ronald Reagan, by comparison, spent 84 days abroad during his two terms. Former President George Bush spent 86 days outside the United States during his four years as president. Criticism of Clinton excursions was "particularly shortsighted," then-White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said after release of the GAO report, because the trips were meant to reap major foreign-policy gains.
With the verdicts starting to roll in, experts aren't so sure of that equation. They say the travel excesses are indicative of a foreign policy in service to a domestic agenda. Mr. Clinton piled passengers into Air Force One the same way he rotated guests through the Lincoln Bedroom. Lead-off foreign policy decisions for the president in his first year ended formal talks with Russia about missile defense-a sop to disarmament Democrats-and overturned a U.S. policy that prohibited taxpayer funding of organizations promoting abortion overseas, a laurel for his pro-abortion and feminist voters; an invasion of Haiti soothed the Black Caucus; Kosovo intervention calmed the outrage of human-rights organizers.
Scattershot globetrotting is a roadmap to eight years of diplomacy that appears miles and miles wide but inches deep. Jeffrey Gedmin, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and lecturer at Georgetown University, said, "I don't know that there is a useful correlation between the amount of time spent abroad and the effectiveness of a president's foreign policy." Mr. Clinton, he said, began his first term focusing on domestic issues to the exclusion of foreign policy. Once reports got out that he was not even attending national security briefings, "he slowly realized the United States is a superpower and must be engaged."
Then Mr. Clinton compiled a quick list of successes. His controversial bailout of Mexico-a $20 billion loan made without the approval of Congress-paid off. Mexico reimbursed the U.S. treasury before its deadline and stabilized its economy. The president's appointment of Richard Holbrooke, who later became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to negotiate an end to the war in Bosnia produced a set of accords in 1995. Many regard the accords as flawed, but they nonetheless ended all-out fighting in the region. Mr. Clinton helped to restart talks between Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army and the British government, although they have yet to produce a final settlement.
Achievements dear to conservative Christians accrued during the Clinton years, but often against the president's wishes. The administration bowed to pressure from evangelical leaders to create a religious-freedom panel within the State Department, then buried many of its recommendations. Hudson Institute scholar Michael Horowitz, who helped draft the legislation that created an independent commission to report on persecution around the world, said Mr. Clinton opposed tracking persecution. He signed the measure into law after both houses passed it overwhelmingly. The president also argued against legislation to tighten criminal statutes for sexual traffickers, but signed that bill after some feminist groups endorsed it. One gauge of his true feelings on those issues, according to Mr. Horowitz: Mr. Clinton signed the bills without a public ceremony. "He was in no way wanting to be identified with those causes," said Mr. Horowitz.
Mr. Clinton was reluctant to impose existing sanctions against Christian persecutors or thug regimes. Government agencies under Mr. Clinton repeatedly made exceptions to trade restrictions for U.S. firms doing business with Sudan and China. Mr. Clinton gave lip service to trade restrictions on Cuba after Fidel Castro's air force shot down two private American airplanes flown by Brothers to the Rescue volunteers. Once a punitive law was in place, he refused to implement it.
In perhaps his most cynical human-rights maneuver, Mr. Clinton ordered the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan on the eve of nationwide broadcast of his deposition in the Monica Lewinsky case. Mr. Clinton said the plant was linked to weapons production for terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden. The attack, publicized as retaliation for the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, served as a national diversion. Later intelligence reports and a UN commission, however, failed to produce evidence that the plant was actually making chemical weapons. The owner of the plant sued the Clinton administration to unfreeze his overseas assets; the White House quietly unfroze them in 1999 instead of seeing the case through court. "Human rights in the Clinton era was an episodic combination of bombs and bluster, with no sense of seriousness," said Mr. Horowitz.
Bigger grievances will become evident only over the long term. Under his presidency, the military, once 1.4 million people strong, was cut by one-third. At the same time, forces have been deployed overseas over three times as often as during the Cold War.
The AEI's Mr. Gedmin believes Clinton policies have done significant, if inadvertent, damage to key alliances. The administration oversaw the successful expansion of NATO, but hectored Western European allies in a way that diminished capital and credibility. In Asia, Mr. Clinton made highly touted trips to China and was celebrated as the first president to visit Bangladesh. Meanwhile Japan, the key U.S. ally in the region, was "not more than an afterthought," according to Mr. Gedmin, both in Mr. Clinton's travel itineraries and in policymaking. In the Middle East, the president sought a mediating role at the expense of Israel, the only democracy and longstanding U.S. ally in the region. "He has failed to distinguish between friends and enemies," said Mr. Gedmin.
Likewise, Mr. Clinton failed to capitalize on U.S.-Russia relations at a watershed time in that country's history. With Russia facing bankruptcy following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the administration propped up a $20 billion International Monetary Fund bailout. But Mr. Clinton failed to use that deal, either to gain leverage on important weapons treaties or to extract accountability from his counterparts. When lenders discovered the money had disappeared into Swiss and American bank accounts laundered for the benefit of old Soviet cronies, Mr. Clinton left it to congressional Republicans to investigate.
Missile defense and, in particular, development of a land-based shield have suffered crucial setbacks as a result of that kind of indifference. By ending talks with the Russians, Mr. Clinton signaled early in his tenure that he would not pursue a controversial missile-defense program. When he endorsed just such a plan last year, it met with round opposition not only from Russia, but from European allies as well. One sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin's upper hand: He induced the Canadian government to issue a joint statement with Russia denouncing U.S. missile-defense proposals. Mr. Gedmin said it is ironic that the tone and style of the Clinton administration was not well suited to the changed conditions of the post-Cold War world. "It is supposed to be conservatives who are heavy-handed, but the Clinton rhetoric was often harsh and unpredictable," he said.
Overall, it appears that Bill Clinton ran his foreign policy the way he booked his extravagant overseas trips: Special interests flew first class while the national interest was relegated to coach. To steer a coherent foreign policy, Mr. Gedmin said, will require "a lot of damage control and replenishing of capital with allies" for a new administration.