Friday, January 16, 2004

Learning to Love Bill Clinton

Thanks to George W. Bush's fiscal profligacy, Andrew Sullivan is gaining a newfound appreciation of just how good fiscal conservatives had it under Clinton's tenure.

Here's the truth: If you take defense and entitlement spending out of the picture altogether (and they have, of course, gone through the roof), Bush and the Republican Congress have upped domestic spending by a whopping 21 percent in three years. That compares with an actual decrease in such spending of 0.7 percent in the first three years of Bill Clinton. Spending on education is up 61 percent; on energy 22 percent; on health and human services 22 percent; on the Labor Department a massive 56 percent. There really is no spinning of this. Bill Clinton was a fiscal conservative. George W. Bush is a fiscal liberal of a kind we haven't seen since LBJ.

Astounding, isn't it? If there's one criticism of Bush in which liberals are absolutely on the money, it is that he is recklessly piling up debt for America's children to pay off.

I can never absolve Bill Clinton of his irresponsible attitude towards the Rwandan massacre (which extended beyond a mere refusal to militarily intervene, to actively blocking the authorization of UN peacekeeper reinforcements while abetting the slaughter by refusing to jam the "Radio Machete" station that did so much to incite the killing of Tutsis); I think that Hillary Clinton's healthcare proposals would have been a disaster for America, a stance on which I am in rather surprising company; I found it rather distasteful that a self-proclaimed champion of female equality should have taken a sexual interest in a White House intern young enough to be his own daughter, or sought to discredit the accusations of harassment made against him by having the accusers tarred as "bimbos" or "trailer trash" (the "nuts and sluts" defense); yet, when it comes to economic management, I think it beyond all doubt that Bill Clinton was a far better steward of the nation's finances than George W. Bush has turned out to be, and a truly courageous champion of free trade, which Bush most certainly is not.

On international affairs, Bush has been much more assertive than Clinton ever was, which I think a good thing for the most part. A definitive resolution of the whole Iraq mess was long overdue, and better for both the wider world and the citizens of Iraq that America went to war to overthrow Saddam, than that France and Russia should have had their way, with sanctions being lifted and Saddam finally at peace to restart his weapons programmes and Kurd-killing; the Kyoto Treaty was a dead letter in America long before Bush came into office; the Clinton administration's attitude towards North Korea was unbelievably naïve, better described as wishful thinking than realistic policy; and the virtues of multilateralism are often overrated, as even the most committed Bush-bashers are willing to note when partisanship isn't clouding their thinking.

Ultimately, however, the separation of foreign policy from economic policy is a largely artificial one. America's ability to realize its foreign policy goals, regardless of the willingness or unwillingness of allies, depends very much on its' economic strength, which Bush's fiscal recklessness threatens to undermine in the long-term. Stealth bombers, cruise missiles and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers cost huge amounts of money, and only an America that can afford to pay for such costly weapons will be able to continue to make its weight felt around the world. When considered in this light, it can be argued that by falling down so badly on the financial front, Bush is actually working to undo all his foreign policy achievements over the longer term - it could well be the judgement of history that Clinton was the better leader on both the economic and foreign policy fronts.