When he delivered his first inaugural address on January 21, 1993, President William J. Clinton noted that distinctions between domestic and foreign affairs were becoming blurred as the global population was affected by "a world economy, world environment, world AIDS crisis, [and a] world arms race." International communications and commerce, new technology, the dominance of 24-hour news coverage, and the end of the Cold War were creating a new context in which the U.S. and its government would need to redefine its role and priorities, both at home and abroad.
"The urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy," Clinton said at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. During his eight years as president, Clinton tackled this question head-on while ushering America into the 21st century.
When Clinton assumed the presidency in January 1993, the U.S. economy was reeling from a second wave of recession following an unprecedented stock collapse in the late 1980s, a savings-and-loan crisis that saw several bank failures, and an oil-price spike resulting from Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. U.S. poverty and crime rates were climbing. Clinton promised both job growth and a reduction in the national debt: "We must do what America does best --" he declared in his inaugural address"-- offer more opportunity to all and demand more responsibility from all."
Clinton's economic strategy focused on fiscal discipline; investment in education, healthcare, and technology; and opening foreign markets. Over strong Republican opposition, the Clinton administration passed budgets that combined tax increases on the wealthy with government spending cuts, achieving the largest budget surpluses and debt reduction in U.S. history by 2000. Poverty levels fell, more than 20 million jobs were created, and unemployment rates consistently decreased over his two terms in office, reaching their lowest levels since the 1960s. With Republican support, he passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, removing trade barriers in North America, and a sweeping welfare-reform bill in 1996 that required recipients to work and placed lifetime limits on benefits, fulfilling his campaign promise to "end welfare as we have come to know it."
Clinton had also promised to end a ban on homosexuals in the military. Focusing on that controversial issue early in his first term, Clinton satisfied few on either side of the argument in July, 1993 when he announced the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise.
A series of efforts to reduce crime included gun control and safety, notably the 1993 Brady Law enforcing background checks for handgun buyers and a ban on assault weapons; increased funding to improve community policing in 1994; and programs to prevent youth crime and drug abuse. The overall crime rate fell during the Clinton administration to the lowest level in a generation. Clinton also confronted acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, most notably when a car bomb was detonated at the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which resulted in legislation that set new limits on habeas corpus intended to help deter domestic terrorism.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provided job protection for workers needing to take a leave of absence for medical and family reasons. Intended to be Clinton's lasting legacy, sweeping healthcare reform proved beyond the reach of his administration, but the State Children's Health Insurance Plan, a major expansion of publicly funded health insurance, brought states funding to cover uninsured children in low-income families. And in major educational initiatives, Clinton backed the Federal Direct Loan program in 1993, providing low-interest college loans, and established the AmeriCorps program, through which volunteers providing community service earn education awards. Under the Clinton administration, college enrollments increased to historically high levels.
Clinton came into office with little direct experience in foreign affairs. In his inaugural address, he laid out a vision in which America continued to lead the world and outlined the beginnings of a new foreign policy in a post-Cold War era: "When our vital interests are challenged, or the will and conscience of the international community is defied, we will act -- with peaceful diplomacy whenever possible, with force when necessary."
Amplifying what would come to be known as the "Clinton Doctrine" in a 1999 speech, Clinton accented the importance of considering "the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so." As a successor to the Cold War doctrine of containing the Soviet threat, Clinton's was a doctrine of enlargement -- of strengthening and expanding the world community of market democracies, with intervention becoming a matter of choice.
The choices would prove to be difficult ones, and the Clinton doctrine would be tested and shaped by a number of international conflicts, and by the vivid images of those conflicts increasingly spread by global media coverage. An intervention in Somalia initiated by Clinton's predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, was intended to provide short-term security for humanitarian relief following civil war and famine there. The conflict escalated after the mission was turned over to United Nations peacekeeping forces. After a battle in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and 84 wounded, and the bodies of American soldiers were desecrated by Somalis, Clinton ultimately was forced to withdraw U.S. troops.
With the unsuccessful intervention in Somalia providing a strong cautionary example, Clinton and the U.N. decided not to intervene in another African civil war in Rwanda, during which hundreds of thousands were massacred. The horrific events led Clinton to regret this decision and count it among the worst of his presidency (David Remnick, New Yorker, "The Wanderer," September 18, 2006.)
Meanwhile, civil and ethnic conflict in the Balkan Peninsula was escalating to genocide, as Bosnian Serbs slaughtered Muslim men, women, and children in their own country. Reluctant to intervene at first, Clinton finally acted after international appeals for the U.S. to take a leadership role, and with the media projecting new images of the atrocities daily. Clinton set up a NATO response plan, which was quickly triggered by a Serbian attack. NATO missions brought an end to the fighting, and within several months Clinton presided over the Dayton Peace Accords, establishing himself as a competent and credible world leader.
International terrorism was also escalating during Clinton's presidency. A deadly truck bombing outside a military housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, devastating explosions targeting the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and a suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 were all linked to al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. In response to the U.S. embassy bombings, Clinton ordered missile strikes on an al Qaeda affiliate in Sudan and on training camps in Afghanistan, despite knowing that his response would likely provoke accusations that he was deflecting attention from the ongoing scandal involving his extra-marital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The strikes missed their target, but Clinton maintained that he had made the right decision in the interest of U.S. national security.
Clinton advocated strongly for international trade agreements that would open markets for U.S. exports. In addition to NAFTA, he pushed through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), establishing in 1995 the World Trade Organization (WTO), an international group of member states responsible for monitoring trade rules among nations. By extending normal trade status to China in 2000, Clinton supported its admission into the WTO. He also lifted Vietnamese trade embargos, laying the groundwork for a new era of cooperation with Vietnam.
Although President Clinton hoped to become a "repairer of the breach," calling upon Congress in his second inaugural address to move beyond extreme partisanship and instead focus on America's mission, the ongoing investigations and scandals that plagued his second term and ultimately led to his impeachment would deny him that achievement. Reflecting on his administration, some will inevitably continue to question what else could have been accomplished. Nevertheless, Clinton's presidency is also remembered as one of the most successful of the 20th century -- not only for its enormous domestic accomplishments and significant foreign-policy achievements, but also for creating a stronger nation at the beginning of a new century.
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