I’ve been musing a bit about Hillary Clinton’s recent travails on the question of foreign policy. (The details are of interest only for the truly obsessed, but FactChecker has a good summary and I link below to the Washington Post take on each issue.) I can’t speak to the Rwanda or China issues, but I do happen to know a bit about the other three areas where there has been some discussion of her activities: Bosnia, Macedonia and Northern Ireland.
On Macedonia, I find her actually the most convincing of the three. This was just after the start of the NATO bombing in March 1999; there were big problems with the management of the flow of refugees driven out of Kosovo by Serbian forces, and the Macedonian government was balancing the country’s own internal stability against the demands being made of it by the international community. Clinton’s critics find her guilty of some exaggeration because the border was re-opened for refugees the day before her arrival, rather than as a result of her negotiation with the Macedonian authorities. In my view it’s clear that her visit must have been part of the overall US and NATO strategy to keep the Macedonians on board (the extent to which Hillary Clinton herself was involved in shaping that policy is, of course, another matter), and the timing of the opening of the border may well have been explicitly linked to her arrival the next day. In politics, cause does sometimes follow effect.
On Northern Ireland, her “instrumental” role was less relevant to the formal political process, dare I say it, than my own (I was the central campaign manager for one of the political parties in the 1996 elections, and worked as an aide to our party’s negotiators from June to December 1996, in the course of which my most substantial contribution was probably a paper on decommissioning which I wrote jointly with Stephen Farry.) She is confused on some of the details, but it’s fair to say that she was one of the more prominent among many contributors, and by her own choice concentrated on building up cross-community links among women’s groups. Her visits to Northern Ireland are only part of the story here, as the Clinton White House also successfully empowered a wider range of people, pulling them into the wider discourse, and presumably she was involved with that. Her schedule reveals significant preparatory work for the Northern Ireland visits on her own part, which is laudable.
On Bosnia, however, the inaccuracy of her recent statements has been extensively documented; her reminiscences are over-dramatic and simply at variance with the facts. It’s a bit unfair to assert, as some have, that there was no physical risk to visitors to Tuzla in March 1996 – we did not know then that the deployment of US troops for ten years in Bosnia would pass without a single combat casualty. And I even have some sympathy with her defence that she is merely human and cannot be expected to get everything right. But I cannot escape the feeling that Clinton was more impressed by the way she was hustled into her plane’s armoured cockpit for the landing in Tuzla than about anything else that happened on the visit. Her most unnerving experiences – which clearly made an impression – were actually supplied by the US military rather than by any local factors, and her brief moments of contact with actual Bosnians were completely forgotten.