"They Still Need Us"

National security advisers are perhaps the least visible, and yet among the most influential, players in Washington. While secretaries of State and Defense travel the world amidst huge staffs and press entourages, giving policy speeches and making headlines, national security advisers tend to work behind the scenes at the White House, subtly shaping U.S. foreign and national security policy. They rarely are in the spotlight, except in times of international crisis. Bush Administration National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, for example, only stepped out of the shadows during the Persian Gulf crisis. Nevertheless, the national security adviser is the closest thing to a Presidential alter-ego on matters of national security and wields immense power in shaping U.S. policy.

Anthony Lake was appointed President Clinton's national security adviser in December 1992, after he left a teaching position at Mount Holyoke College to serve as a senior foreign policy adviser to the Clinton/Gore campaign. A former career foreign service officer, Lake served as U.S. vice consul in Saigon and Hue during the Vietnam War and in senior positions in both the Nixon and Carter Administrations.

During a recent interview in his White House office with Government Executive contributing editor James Kitfield, Lake argued that the Clinton Administration has kept the lid on troubles in Haiti, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and other hot spots around the world, smoothing the way for its diplomatic and peacekeeping efforts. President Clinton has proved he's patient enough to wait until warring parties are ready to deal, Lake said, but he won't back down from a fight.

Q: Despite Republican efforts to make foreign policy and national security wedge issues this election year, the polls indicate the American public is hardly paying attention. Are you surprised that foreign affairs is not resonating more?

A: I think there could have been an historic debate on foreign policy this year if either of the parties had fallen into the hands of those who believe in relative isolationism. During the 45 years following World War II, we had an unusual period where the internationalists won the debate, and the Cold War produced something close to a national consensus behind a policy of engagement in the world. That was unusual in our history. In the last four or five years, there was a return to the traditional debate over whether the United States should live more or less in isolation, or remain engaged.

Q: Where do you believe that debate stands today?

A: The really big news is that the debate was won in both parties in favor of the internationalists. That was the underlying message of the debate over NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] and Bosnia. I believe those issues proved that both Mr. Dole and President Clinton are internationalists who believe in American leadership in the world. That's of historic significance.

Q: Given some apparent stumbles by the Clinton Administration early in your term, many observers believed foreign policy would be a key area of vulnerability for the President in this election. Now polls show apparent satisfaction with his handling of foreign policy. When did you turn the corner?

A: I think the fall of 1994 was the watershed. Both in our intervention in Haiti, and in backing down Saddam Hussein when he made moves towards Kuwait, the President successfully used the threat of military force. Even though we'd made a lot of progress on economic issues, the most important issue in the public's mind in terms of foreign policy is how the President acts as commander-in-chief.

Q: Many observers would point to Bosnia as the turning point, since our apparent vacillation in responding to that war had created a sense of drift in American leadership and resolve.

A: Though we rebelled against the impression, it was firmly rooted in the perceptions here in Washington that Bosnia was synonymous with American foreign policy. It wasn't. In fact, we were making progress in a lot of other areas at the time: North Korea, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, etc. But Bosnia had become a kind of symbol of our foreign policy.

Q: Do you regret not taking a harder line with the Serbs at some earlier point in that conflict?

A: Well, it's not as if we suddenly got smart on Bosnia after a couple of years. What progress we had seen in Bosnia was because President Clinton pushed it through. Go back over that entire period, and you will find that it was America doing the pushing for more forceful action.

Q: Yet some experts believe if we had pushed our allies into collective action earlier, we might have saved thousands of lives.

A: There may have been periods in which we could have pushed even harder, but remember that it was our initiative that brought the Croat-Muslim federation together, and then European public opinion started to turn around after the Serb offensive, and [French President Jacques] Chirac gets some credit for that. Finally, we sensed an opening in the summer of 1995, and we pushed hard for the Dayton agreements. I believe if we had launched that same major push a year earlier, however, it would have failed, because the situation on the ground was not yet right for success.

Q: Senator Robert Dole has criticized the President for not showing more firm leadership, indicating that if we had pushed harder our NATO allies would surely have come along.

A: Well, the world has changed a little from the Cold War, when the Europeans felt they needed us more because of the Soviet threat. What Bosnia showed is that they still need us as much as ever. Indeed, I think after Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Haiti, it became evident that this President was leading, and that without American leadership things didn't happen. That idea is now firmly rooted in public perceptions, and it's one of the things I'm most satisfied about. Everything is not satisfactory around the world, but this President has defined a post-Cold War role of leadership for the United States in a very new world.

Q: How do you respond to the contention of many Republicans that America has no vital interests in Northern Ireland, and thus it was a waste of Presidential capital and national prestige to intervene?

A: I invite anyone who feels Northern Ireland isn't important to go there. I, along with a lot of other Americans, believe we do have interests in Northern Ireland, and in the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. So I would certainly not grant that point. In terms of progress, while all parties are now yelling at each other, at least there are ongoing talks. The bomb blasts were a setback, and not everyone is present at the talks, but talks are going on. That's much better than the situation a year ago. Now we have to make those talks work.

Q: Wasn't the election of the conservative government of new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a repudiation of the President's obvious support for Shimon Peres?

A: No. In the Middle East we're going through a period of uncertainty as the new Israeli government is formed. But we still have a Palestinian Authority, and peace between Israel and Jordan. That's progress.

Q: Turning to another part of the world, the Republicans have also criticized this Administration's hard-line stance on trade with Japan, our most important strategic ally in the Pacific Rim. Are you not in danger of jeopardizing that strategic relationship with constant clashes on trade?

A: I defy you to find a single speech by a Japanese official in which they've said that our security relationship is in trouble over our economic differences. Nor have I had any such private conversations with Japanese officials. We've had tough trade talks, but our relations with the Japanese are not acrimonious.

Q: Isn't there a danger of them becoming so if trade becomes the predominant issue between the two countries?

A: The first trip President Clinton took overseas was to Japan, where he gave a speech laying out an Asian security policy. That was the first time an American President had laid out an Asia-wide security policy in over a decade. All of this was reaffirmed in the President's last trip to Japan. So if you look beyond the trade rhetoric, you'll find that we've worked extremely closely with the Japanese in defusing the Okinawa crisis, on the Korean issue, and in coordinating our China policy. I don't think you can find stories that you heard in previous times, where the Japanese were questioning our cooperation on security matters.

Q: Sticking with specific Republican criticisms used to distinguish the candidates' foreign policy approach, President Clinton is often faulted for embracing "multilateralism." The implication is that he is too willing to cede authority to the United Nations.

A: I just think it's wrong to call this Administration "multilateralist." The President has been very clear on this point since 1992: Together when we can, alone if we must. So I think this should be a practical rather than theological argument. Sometimes it makes practical sense to share the burden, both in money and manpower. When we can work with our allies, we should.

In general, I think the same view that animated the formation of the NATO alliance that won the Cold War should animate us still. Yet during the Cold War, we were prepared to act alone if necessary.

Q: When has the Clinton Administration been prepared to act unilaterally?

A: When we backed off an Iraq that was moving towards Kuwait, or when we hit Baghdad after the plot to assassinate President Bush was revealed. The same is true of Bosnia. When I went to Europe to announce the Dayton agreements, I made it very clear to the Europeans that we were going to do this, and we could do it more effectively if they joined us. But we were going ahead in either case. As it turned out they joined us, and indeed it was more effective acting multilaterally with American leadership. I think that's the model we should continue to pursue.

Q: This Administration's use of the military for a number of "operations other than war" has raised the concern that these constant deployments are draining their abilities to fight and win major conflicts.

A: I don't think our military is drained. Look at the results. The U.S. military is succeeding across a wide spectrum of operations: from traditional missions of deterring major regional conflicts in North Korea, Iraq and the Taiwan Straits, to peacekeeping in Haiti and Bosnia and humanitarian relief in Rwanda. And anyone who questions the readiness and morale of these troops should go out and visit them. The morale of these troops involved in real-world missions is very high. And we will continue to watch the readiness of our forces very closely.

Q: Rather than reciting successes in individual cases on various fronts, how do you define for the American people this Administration's foreign policy vision as we approach the next century?

A: If you define national security in terms of what makes a difference to American citizens in their everyday lives, and I think you should, then I think we are defining a vision in three vital areas.

First, this President has maintained an American security presence in Asia, and has begun to pull Asia together through various alliances and bilateral initiatives. He has also led the way towards creating a peaceful, undivided and democratic Europe through NATO enlargement and in reaching out to Russia with support for democratic reforms.

Secondly, we're facing new security threats in terms of terrorism, international crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Once again, this President has taken the lead in combating terrorism with a tough anti-terrorism bill, in aggressively opening FBI offices around the world to combat international crime, and in establishing an international arms control regime that includes a nuclear test ban treaty, non-proliferation treaty and tighter controls on fissile materials.

Finally, we are creating a global trading system that fits the new world of instant capital flow. That is the message behind NAFTA, GATT and the extraordinary range of trade agreements we've reached with Japan that have reduced our trade deficit with that country for 18 months in a row. We're opening markets and creating jobs in what has become the most competitive economy in the world, which is the economy of the United States. So those are the three fundamental pillars supporting our vision of a world of declining terrorism and open markets and expanding democracy in a peaceful Europe and Asia.

Q: Perhaps Ronald Reagan put it most succinctly. In terms of foreign affairs and national security, are the American people better off today than four years ago?

A: Absolutely. Go back to January 1993, and I think you'll understand why the American public believes this President has been successful in foreign policy. In January 1993 there was war in Bosnia, a refugee tide from Haiti, an aggressive nuclear program in North Korea and thousands of Russian missiles pointed at American cities.

Today there's peace in Bosnia, we've seen the first transition from one elected government to another in Haiti's 200-year history, North Korea's nuclear program is frozen under international supervision and no Russian missiles are targeted at our cities.

In addition, we now have in place a number of international trade agreements that are directly benefiting American workers and companies. All of those accomplishments have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary American citizens.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec