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Bill Clinton’s unfinished business

I’m in New York this week, where I will be blogging live from both the U.N. General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative throughout the week.  My first experience at CGI was a rare privilege, a “blogger roundtable” with former President Bill Clinton. Discussion was limited to issues related to the initiative’s work (so much ...

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<> the Exploring the Arts Gala at Cipriani, Wall Street on September 21, 2009 in New York City.

I’m in New York this week, where I will be blogging live from both the U.N. General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative throughout the week. 

My first experience at CGI was a rare privilege, a “blogger roundtable” with former President Bill Clinton. Discussion was limited to issues related to the initiative’s work (so much for all those Kim Jong Il questions I had come up with on the train), but I managed to sneak a national-security question in by asking Clinton what he thought about the military taking on more traditonal civilian NGO responsibilities in Afghanistan as the military shifts toward a counterinsurgency strategy:

Smart soldiers know you have to deal with real people on the ground. Not just drop things from the sky that kill people and make more enemies. Any time you’re not home, you’re playing an away game. So yes, the Army is going to need to pick up some of these [development] skills. I would hope that smart military commanders will go to NGOs and not try to supplant them, but support their work and protect them. …

NGOs can always do some things the Army can’t, because they’re not carrying guns. Whenever you carry a weapon, mistakes can happen. I know. I’ve done it. 

Clinton continued, discussing the war in Kosovo, on which he said there was “never a more righteous cause” but on more than one occaision caused unnecessary civilian deaths. He didn’t comment directly on the need for more troops or the wisdom of the Afghan venture more generally, but did note that the creation of an Afghan government with legitimacy and respect for women’s rights would be a “great thing.”

I was struck throughout the conversation by the degree to which Clinton’s current projects seem informed by what he sees as the major mistakes of his presidency. Discussing the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative‘s early work in Rwanda, he says he focused on the country because “I owe it to them because of what happened in 1994.”

Discussing why he thinks Obama should be willing to pass a health bill without a public option, which he supports, Clinton remembered the hard-line stance he took on gun control, saying, “I don’t want my party to do what they did in 94. We took on the NRA and they took 15 of our guys out.”

Clinton’s main policy priority at the moment is getting a climate change bill — any climate change bill — passed. “We have to fight like crazy to get it as good as it can,” he says. Clinton believes that skepticism about the bill could be overcome if lawmakers understood the basic economics, noting that the four European countries with the strongest economic growth prior to the economic crisis — Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Britain — are all on track to meet their goals under the Kyoto Protocol.

Again remembering the degree to which his early aggressiveness forced more painful political compromises later in his presidency, Clinton argued that once a basic bill is passed and the benefits are observed, public pressure will grow to improve on it. “Republicans are always for yesterday’s change,” he said.

Tomorrow, at the CGI opening session, Clinton will share the stage with the current president, the one currently facing the challenges Clinton learned from. Stay tuned…

Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for Exploring the Arts

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