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During his two terms as president, Bill Clinton intended to focus on domestic policy over foreign policy. But between 1992 and 2000, the U.

S. was involved in several international conflicts and diplomatic interventions, which will be covered in this lesson.

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Clinton’s Foreign Policy

In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected America’s 42nd president.

Clinton intended to focus on domestic policy and did not intend to deviate much from existing foreign policy, except where it could improve the American economy. For example, President Clinton hoped to increase the number of free market democracies in the world, sometimes referred to as the ‘policy of enlargement,’ and advocated for open trade, including the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO). But it seemed like, time and again, Bill Clinton kept finding himself and the nation mixed up in military actions around the globe.

Middle East

Clinton’s predecessor, President George H. W. Bush, drove invading Iraqi troops out of Kuwait during the First Gulf War.

Under President Clinton, the U.S. became the main enforcer for United Nations directives against Iraq, including economic sanctions, military no-fly zones, and weapons inspection teams. But Saddam Hussein persistently interfered and obstructed these goals, resulting in a series of U.S.-led missile strikes in retaliation.

When Saddam Hussein expelled the U.N. inspectors in 1998, President Clinton was convinced that he was rebuilding weapons of mass destruction that he had used in the past.

Operation Desert Fox was a four-day bombing raid, targeting existing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and the factories used to make them.Also in the Middle East, Clinton tried to broker peace for Israel. In 1993, he welcomed Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House to shake hands and sign the Oslo Accords. But citizens on both sides felt they had made too many concessions, and two years later, the Israeli Prime Minister was assassinated by a dissatisfied countryman. Before long, the entire agreement had broken down and the violence was as bad as ever.


Back in September 1991, a military coup in Haiti overthrew that nation’s first democratically-elected president.

President Bush had supported a series of economic sanctions against that regime, a policy which Clinton continued. But by 1993, Clinton was trying to pressure the rebels to relinquish power. When diplomacy failed, Clinton planned an invasion.As 25,000 troops and two aircraft carriers embarked for Haiti in October ’94, the military government capitulated. President Aristide’s original government was restored for the time being. Throughout this process, the Clinton administration also continued President Bush’s policy of returning Haitian refugees.


The Clinton administration also inherited a situation in Africa. President Bush had dispatched American troops to Somalia to distribute food to millions of people starving as a result of civil war. The soldiers had been prepared for a humanitarian mission, but the situation quickly escalated.Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, 18 soldiers were killed, dozens wounded, and the bodies of the dead desecrated in the streets.

Clinton increased American troop presence, attempting to keep peace and track down a warlord responsible for the chaos. But in the face of significant political opposition, Clinton finally withdrew all U.S. forces in March 1994.This unsuccessful intervention was the backdrop for the administration’s hesitation to act in Rwanda, where a bloody civil war broke out the following month. Over a three-month period in the spring of 1994, the majority Hutu tribe massacred 800,000 minority Tutsis and their supporters.

Several years later, Clinton remarked that his refusal to intervene was among his biggest regrets as president.

The Balkans

The administration also hesitated to act in the Balkans. In 1991, the former Yugoslavia broke into five nations and the region disintegrated into violence. But as the situation in Bosnia escalated to genocide, Clinton orchestrated a NATO bombing campaign in 1995 to bring the factions to the negotiating table.The Dayton Peace Accords outlined a fragile peace, and 20,000 U.S.

peacekeeping troops tried to uphold it. But by 1998, there was fresh conflict in the region. A new bombing campaign, lasting 77 days, forced Serbia’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to capitulate, ending the violence.


President Clinton also faced a persistent increase in terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad. In February 1993, a car bomb under the World Trade Center killed four people and injured thousands.

During the ensuing investigation, the FBI uncovered a larger plan to bomb several more New York landmarks, including the United Nations.Eventually, the attack was traced back to foreign-funded Muslim terrorists, but the Clinton administration dealt with the plot as a criminal act and pursued suspects through the judicial system. Likewise, two car bombs targeting U.S.

forces in Saudi Arabia in ’95 and ’96, which killed hundreds, and a deadly attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, prompted no military action.In 1998, car bombs at the U.

S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania exploded simultaneously, killing 301 people and injuring more than 5,000. The attacks were linked to Osama Bin Laden, the terrorist later associated with 9/11. The administration responded with missile strikes against training camps in Afghanistan and a chemical factory in Sudan.

The 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City was widely assumed to be the work of a similar group of foreign terrorists. But, an exhaustive FBI investigation revealed that the terrorist attack, which killed 166 people, was actually perpetrated by Americans.

Diplomatic Intervention

The Clinton administration was also involved in several foreign events that ultimately did not require military action. For example, North Korea halted its nuclear program under the threat of economic sanctions in 1994. Also in 1994, the Clinton administration applied economic pressure to persuade Russia to withdraw the last of its troops from Estonia and Latvia.Throughout his term, the United States stood by Russia while it made the transition from communism to a free-market democracy, including legislation and funding to help secure former Soviet nuclear sites. Clinton supported sizable financial assistance to Russia from the International Monetary Fund.

Mexico’s peso was bailed out in 1995, against popular opinion, but their economy was stabilized and Mexico repaid the loan ahead of schedule.But, President Clinton considered his work in Northern Ireland among his greatest successes as president. For thirty years, Protestant Unionists fought to remain part of Great Britain, while Catholic Nationalists had struggled to merge with Ireland to the south. Several paramilitary groups contributed to violence that left more than 3,000 people dead and tens of thousands injured.

Various attempts had been made to end ‘The Troubles,’ but in 1998, Clinton was determined to help resolve the long-standing conflict.After nearly two years of negotiation, the Good Friday Agreement was accepted by most of the parties. It didn’t solve every problem in Northern Ireland, but home rule returned, the competing factions shared power, and all sides agreed that only a popular majority vote could change the nation’s constitutional status. Though the nation briefly returned to a period of direct rule by the British in 2002, Northern Ireland in 2014 seems to be on the path to lasting peace.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.

President Bill Clinton expected his presidency to focus on domestic policy and the U.S. economy, but found himself engaged in many world affairs, both military and diplomatic. He ousted a military leader in Haiti, subdued the Balkans, and negotiated peace in Northern Ireland. Clinton also intervened diplomatically with North Korea, Russia, and Mexico.

He attempted to bring peace to Israel. Clinton ordered bombing raids against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden without removing either of them as a threat. He withdrew U.S. troops from Somalia after a failed humanitarian mission and failed to intervene in a bloody civil war in Rwanda.

Learning Outcomes

After concluding this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand Clinton’s desire to continue the former administrations foreign policy while concentrating on domestic issues
  • Recognize Clinton’s inability to do much for Africa (Somalia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya)
  • Identify his successes in Bosnia and Northern Ireland

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