The Importance of Principles in Foreign Policy, the Economy, and Political Change

by | Sep 19, 1999 | Environment, Foreign Policy

Joseph Kellard for Capitalism Magazine: What is your assessment of President Clinton’s foreign policy in the Balkans? Tracinski: Well, to start with, I think his so-called victory in the recent Kosovo conflict is really an unmitigated disaster. First, we ended up agreeing to all of the demands Milosevic made to NATO before the bombing began. […]

Joseph Kellard for Capitalism Magazine: What is your assessment of President Clinton’s foreign policy in the Balkans?

Tracinski: Well, to start with, I think his so-called victory in the recent Kosovo conflict is really an unmitigated disaster.

First, we ended up agreeing to all of the demands Milosevic made to NATO before the bombing began. At a conference in Rambouillet, France–before the bombings–Milosevic said he would agree to a “peacekeeping” force if it were led by the United Nations and not NATO. He also refused to agree to a referendum on autonomy for Kosovo. The ostensible purpose of this bombing was to get him to bend on those demands. But it was NATO that ultimately bent, and Milosevic has gotten exactly the deal he demanded at Rambouillet.

Meanwhile, the Serbs have displaced and murdered countless Albanians in Kosovo–and Clinton has put thousands of U.S. soldiers and pilots in harm’s way, all to accomplish precisely nothing.

But it’s even worse than just a waste of time, money, and lives. The worst and longest-lasting consequences of this mission probably won’t be in the Balkans. Rather, they will come from Clinton’s weakness in dealing with the Russians and the Chinese. Clinton not only allowed the Russians–who were openly pro-Serb and anti-American–to serve as our intermediaries with Milosevic. He also allowed them to make a mockery of the peace deal by coming into Kosovo before NATO and seizing the airport we had intended to use as our headquarters.

The symbolism was very clear, too. The Russians came into Kosovo by way of Belgrade. It’s obvious that they’re in Kosovo to protect Serb interests against NATO. And yet we’re billed as all being members of the same U.N. “peacekeeping” operation!

This is a potentially dangerous situation. What happens if the Serbs don’t hold up their end of the agreement, or if new fighting breaks out and the “peacekeepers” are called on to take action against Serbia? There the Russian troops will be with their mission to protect Serbia. Clinton says we have to send troops to the Balkans because that’s where previous World Wars started. But he’s doing everything he can to ensure that the next one will start there, too.

Finally, there is the whole debacle of our bombing of the Chinese embassy. It’s not the bombing itself that is the problem–it’s our constant, mealy-mouthed apologizing for it. Here’s a country that routinely murders, enslaves, and tortures its own citizens, and here we are apologizing for what was obviously an accidental bombing of their embassy. The only proper way to apologize to China’s dictators would be to say: “We’re sorry we killed your people before you could get around to killing them yourselves.” But Clinton has allowed China to take the moral high ground. And remember that this was on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. America ought to have the moral high ground against China, without question; but Clinton gave that up long ago–especially in his last visit to China.

Capitalism Magazine: In the May 1999 issue of The Intellectual Activist (TIA) you wrote how President Clinton claims that “a civil war in the tiny nation of Serbia–with no weapons of mass destruction, an army of only 90,000 men, and no ability to attack our allies–is, in some unspecified way, a threat to American interests. He then claims that China–a nation with nuclear missiles targeted at the US, armed with secretes stolen from our military laboratories, a nation that sells weapons technology to Islamic terrorists and openly intimidates our allies, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan–is not a threat to American interests.” What is at the root of Clinton’s foreign policy that makes him reach these conclusions?

Tracinski: Well first of all, I don’t think Clinton really believes the Balkan conflict is a threat to U.S. interests. Or, rather, he believes it in the same way he believes anything–the same way he believes he didn’t really have sex with Monica Lewinsky. He believes it as a set of sounds to mouth at and for this particular moment.

But at root, I don’t think Clinton is really interested at all in America’s interests.

In fact, I think the opposite is true: He’s hostile to American interests. This is the only thing that brings any unity or logic to Clinton’s policies. It explains why he condemns Milosevic yet apologizes to the Chinese. It explains why he bombs Baghdad for two days but bombs Belgrade for two months.

Every time there is a need for America to assert itself, to stand up righteously for its own interests, Clinton does the opposite, whether it’s against China or North Korea or Iraq. But anywhere that some insignificant little tribe asks for help in an obscure conflict, that is considered an important claim on U.S. military might, whether it’s in Somalia or Haiti or Zaire or Bosnia.

This inversion was made totally clear at the end of the Gulf War. Back then, the left condemned the war against Iraq because it was fought over oil — which means that it was “just” in America’s self-interest. But they then added: If only this tremendous military might could be used “for good,” by which they meant, for self-sacrifice.

George Bush got the ball rolling by sending troops to Somalia. He wanted to show that all the altruist claptrap he used to justify the Gulf War–obedience to U.N. mandates and the like–was really sincere. He wanted to show that America wasn’t really motivated by selfishness, that we were willing to sacrifice our soldiers and resources. Clinton has followed that lead–only he’s been more consistent. His policy is all sacrifice and no self-interest.

So Clinton’s claims about Kosovo being in America’s interests are just meaningless lip-flapping. Their purpose is to cover up the real hostility to U.S. interests that actually motivates his foreign policy.

Capitalism Magazine: Yet before Clinton bombed Iraq, after years of appeasing Saddam Hussein, you criticized him for not bombing that nation. Now you criticize him for bombing Iraq for “two days.” If Clinton, as you claim, is hostile to America’s interest and his foreign policy is all self-sacrifice, how was this true when he finally bombed Iraq when he did?

Tracinski: Well, the point of my criticism is that he bombed Iraq for only two days, which is a contrast to his statements about how he was going to bomb Serbia for as long as it took.

Moreover, my broader criticism of Clinton is not about “Did he bomb or didn’t he.” A bombing by itself can’t accomplish much–as the bombing of Iraq demonstrated. As I argued in the February 1999 issue of TIA, for any military action to be effective, it has to be part of a long-term policy.

We would have to establish in words and actions that we are serious about the threats we make, that we believe we are morally entitled to defend ourselves, and that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve that end. Without that context, a few days of military action is just helpless flailing. And, unfortunately, that’s what most of Clinton’s foreign policy has been about.

Capitalism Magazine: What factors do you attribute to the largely sound and prosperous economy that has materialized during Clinton’s term as president? And to what degree, if any, did his policies contribute or actually harm this economy?

Tracinski: What has helped the economy is the fact that Clinton doesn’t really have any policies–not in any serious sense, at least.

In the first two years of his administration, Clinton tried all of his major statist initiatives–raising taxes, nationalizing medicine, banning guns. Some of them were passed, but the most ambitious failed. And what was even more devastating for him, the Republicans were rewarded for opposing these policies–they swept the Congressional elections in 1994.

Since then, Clinton has retreated to being much more of a compromiser, accepting some conservative measures like welfare reform and putting forward only a series of small statist proposals. And, as weak as the Republicans are, the House still manages to stop some of the worst items. So Clinton has helped the economy by doing very little.

And the biggest part of our prosperity comes from the fact that, for the first time in a very long while, the government has managed to restrain itself from inflating the currency. The stable monetary environment, and the lower interest rates it supports, have probably been the biggest factors in enabling the economy to grow.

The biggest danger Clinton poses to the economy are in areas where he’s not dependent on Congress, where he can, to some extent at least, act without restraint.

The first is antitrust enforcement, which has skyrocketed during his administration. If Clinton succeeds in hobbling corporations like Microsoft–and in protecting entrenched businesses against innovators in every other field, from bookstores to airlines–then that will have a very serious effect on the economy.

Also, there is the Kyoto Protocol and Al Gore’s whole environmentalist agenda, which threatens to destroy economic growth on principle. And finally, there is the regulatory assault, especially in the area of “disabilities” law. Clinton has taken these laws to their final reductio ad absurdum: You can’t discriminate against employees on the grounds of competence or ability.

Capitalism Magazine: If the biggest factor for America’s current economic prosperity is government’s restraint from inflating the economy and lower interest rates, what stops politicians and bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve Board, such as Alan Greenspan, from making this a consistent policy for economic growth?

Tracinski: Well, they have made it a consistent policy to some extent. But this system is inherently uncertain precisely because it depends on the politicians and bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve to keep it going. If they decide that it is more expedient for the moment to inflate the currency, or if Greenspan thinks that “irrational exuberance” requires him to raise interest rates, or if they just plain make a mistake–I hear that Greenspan looks at hundreds of statistics to try to decide whether to raise or lower interest rates–then they can cause a great deal of harm to the economy.

The only way to really secure a stable currency, over the long run, is to adopt a gold standard. That would take the decision out of the hands of bureaucrats and base the value of our currency on the objective value of a real commodity.

Capitalism Magazine: Can you explain what the promoters of the newest political categories of “centrism” and “Third Way” want Americans to believe they represent, and what do you think they represent?

Tracinski: Well, I think this ruse of the “Third Way” provides a lot of the answer to why Bill Clinton hasn’t been able to accomplish much.

It’s important to remember that the “Third Way” is really the fourth way. It used to be that the “Third Way” or “Middle Way” was a compromise between capitalism and communism.

The original “Third Way” was a Swedish-style democratic socialist welfare state. The new “Third Way” is really a compromise on the compromise–it’s a “middle way” between the socialist welfare state and capitalism. So the compromise is trending in the capitalist direction, which I suppose is a good sign. And that’s part of the reason why Clinton has been largely impotent to create any major new attacks or controls on the economy.But the purpose of the “Third Way” compromise is just as vicious as it was back with the original “Third Way.”

Its purpose is to dissolve the moral issues involved–to break down the difference between capitalism and socialism, on the grounds that we shouldn’t go to “extremes”–and use the resulting fog as an excuse to move incrementally toward socialism. And as I said above, Clinton has been partly successful in this regard. He can’t get any major new statist initiatives approved by Congress–but he has destroyed any strong Republican resistance to a whole string of small statist measures, because they’re afraid of being seen as “mean” or as defenders of selfishness.

Capitalism Magazine: At this time, it appears that during the presidential election in 2000, Americans will have as their main choices only Al Gore, whose policies will largely mirror those of Bill Clinton’s, and George W. Bush, whose “compassionate conservatism” some political observers regard as liberalism in disguise. How has liberalism survived this long as a political force in America, and how much is conservatism to blame for its survival?

Tracinski: Liberalism–that is, statism–has survived because it faces no moral opposition. And this is where the responsibility of the conservatives comes in. The conservatives don’t challenge the idea that the “haves” must be sacrificed to the “have nots”–that the producers must be sacrificed to the parasites. They don’t question the idea that selfishness is evil–and as a result, they can’t argue against the idea that capitalism is evil.

Right now, conservatism is splitting into two camps.

On the one side are the pro-free-market “libertarian” conservatives–who are generally pragmatists, who champion free markets only because they are “efficient.” On the other side are the religious conservatives, who want to use the state to impose personal morality and ban such things as violence in films. These people have actually come out against “too much” advocacy of the free market. So you can see that there is no moral opposition to the left.

At the same time, however, the moral basis of the left has to a large extent collapsed, and has been collapsing ever since the late 1970s. No one believes any more in the great socialist ideal–no one believes any more in this idea of a prosperous, benevolent state in which the whole economy would be “scientifically” managed by bureaucrats. So instead everyone is converging toward the middle. Their morality moves them toward more government control — since they believe that altruism and sacrifice are good. But they sense that at the end of this road lies slavery and destruction. So they cling to a pragmatic “Third Way,” of which Clinton and George “W.” are virtually indistinguishable examples.

By the way, I regard Gore as worse than both Clinton and Bush, and I would vote for practically any Republican instead of him. (The only exceptions are Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan–in which case, I wouldn’t vote.) Unlike Clinton, Gore has a real ideological commitment: He is against industry, technology, progress, and he seriously thinks that we have to strike a moral balance between sacrificing people vs. cutting down trees. And in foreign policy he has been consistently pro-China. I expect Bush to betray capitalism, but I doubt he could possibly cause more damage than Gore.

Capitalism Magazine: Does your opposition to Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan imply that conservatives of the religious variety are somehow worse than the pragmatic, “pro-free market” variety?

Tracinski: Yes, definitely. The pragmatist are just impotent; they are buffeted about by events and can exert no leadership because they have no ideas. The religious and, in Buchanan’s case, quasi-fascist conservatives are worse because they do have ideas. They are dedicated to principles, and their principles are completely opposed to freedom and individual rights.

So that’s why I wouldn’t vote if Bauer and Buchanan were pitted against Gore (which is, thankfully, unlikely). It would be a choice between two brands of principled anti-individualist.

Capitalism Magazine: Why do you believe the Libertarian Party is not a proper alternative to the Democrat-and-Republican status quo, even though many Libertarians allege that their party’s platform is compatible with Objectivist politics?

Tracinski: The answer is contained in what I said above. The only way to stop the trend toward greater government control is to offer better ideas. But the Libertarian Party is founded on the idea that fundamental ideas are irrelevant to political activism. Their whole idea is that people can get together to work for freedom regardless of their underlying philosophy. But that is exactly the opposite of the truth. There is no way to work for freedom–or even to define freedom correctly–without a proper underlying philosophy. That’s why The Intellectual Activist has the name it does. We realize that we have to be activists in the realm of philosophy first, with political activism following from that. That’s also why Nick Provenzo and I call our new organization the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism. We realize that the real battleground is not politics but morality and everything it depends on.

Capitalism Magazine: Where does Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism stand as an influence in American culture and politics today, and what do you believe it will take for the movement behind it to dramatically increase its influence?

Tracinski: I think that her philosophy has more influence than most of us realize. I am constantly amazed to discover “Objectivist sympathizers” all over the place. This includes everyone from my accountant to waiters at restaurants–and even people in positions of significant authority: congressmen, judges, even a university administrator. Many of these people are not Objectivists, but they have read and been influenced by Ayn Rand in some way.And this can certainly be seen in the political debate in all sorts of indirect ways.

In antitrust, for example, I have seen that defenders of the antitrust laws increasingly feel the need to defend themselves from the charge that they are trying to punish achievement. But who is it who made that charge? Ayn Rand. Here’s another aspect of that. Three decades ago, the U.S. government arrested the top executives of General Electric, led them into court in handcuffs, and threatened them with criminal antitrust charges.

Today, even though civil antitrust charges are skyrocketing, the Department of Justice has practically eliminated the use of criminal charges. I think that this really reflects a change in the political environment. I think they sense that the sight of Bill Gates in handcuffs would enrage and offend the public and would expose antitrust as an assault on ability and intelligence. Whereas they weren’t afraid to do that to General Electric years ago.This is part of the reason why I think the time is right for Objectivist political activism.

Some of Ayn Rand’s ideas are already making it into the debate implicitly, or in some watered-down form. It’s time to bring her ideas into the debate fully and explicitly. As I said above, statism still survives and grows because it has moral authority, the authority of altruism. It’s time to start drawing on the moral authority of the pro-selfishness, pro-capitalism side.

The Objectivist movement is already making a good start. What we need first of all is more Objectivist writers and intellectuals–whose numbers have already increased enormously since I became an Objectivist twelve years ago. We need to train these intellectuals and to transmit to them the knowledge gained by the older generation–people like Harry Binswanger and Peter Schwartz. With the Objectivist Graduate Center, we now have that.

The final thing that we need is more institutions to help create an environment in which these intellectuals can reach the media and work at spreading Objectivist ideas full-time. And with the Ayn Rand Institute and now the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism, we’re beginning to have that.

So I am very optimistic about the future of the Objectivist movement and about our ability to have an increasing effect on the cultural and political debate in this country.

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. To read more of Mr. Kellard's commentary, visit his website The American Individualist at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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