Friday :: Dec 28, 2007

Sen. Obama, the Washington Establishmentarian, Effectively Concedes the "Experience" Debate

by eriposte

I don't have time yet to do full justice to the New York Times article by Patrick Healy, which Jeff briefly wrote about earlier this week (as did Big Tent Democrat at Talk Left and Taylor Marsh), but I want to make a couple of quick points today. This article is more revealing in what it doesn't say than in what it says. I'll illustrate this using a couple of obvious examples that stuck out like sore thumbs.

Let's start here (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

And late last week, Mr. Obama suggested that more foreign policy experts from the Clinton administration were supporting his candidacy than hers; his campaign released a list naming about 45 of them, and said that others were not ready to go public. Mrs. Clinton quickly put out a list of 80 who were supporting her, and plans to release another 75 names on Wednesday.

Let's set aside the fact that Sen. Obama's claim is shown, in the article, to be weak from an evidentiary perspective. What is particularly amusing to me is that after building his entire foreign policy pitch and "experience" argument around the notion that the Washington DC Establishment "experts" can't be trusted and often don't demonstrate real "experience", his approach to proving his point is by, um, showcasing how many Washington Establishment experts - that too from the Clinton administration (that he evidently believes caused too many problems for the country) - he has selected as advisors to his campaign! Equally fascinating to me is the person who is increasingly showing up as a key advisor and surrogate of Sen. Obama - someone who also makes a key appearance in Healy's NYT article. That person is another Washington Establishment "expert" who was once part of the Clinton administration and is also part of the Establishment of all Establishments when in comes to foreign policy (i.e., the Brookings Institution) - Dr. Susan Rice. As I pointed out in my earlier post, "The Campaign Debate on Qualifications and Experience":

If anything, Sen. Obama's acceptance of many experts from the 1990s Clinton team into his fold is as much a testament that he believes the Clintons knew what they were doing, as it is a reflection that he is in the process of learning how they did it. Sen. Clinton already knows what they did in the 1990s and how they did it: that's why she figuratively says been there, done that! That's why you keep seeing her repeatedly making the "ready on day one" argument. Yes, it's political spin but it also happens to be mostly true in this case.

More on that last statement in a future post, but I want to direct your focus to another important perspective that is missing in the NYT article. That perspective is the reason why I specifically mentioned Dr. Rice, who is the main Clinton critic quoted in the NYT article. I have no problem with Dr. Rice being a foreign policy advisor to Sen. Obama - and she is definitely more qualified and knowledgeable than I am on foreign policy - but I did find it rather interesting that she is the one critiquing Sen. Clinton's claim of experience, and yet, examples of relevant history pertaining to Dr. Rice's own foreign policy "experience" and judgment - in comparison to then First Lady Clinton - are not mentioned in the same NYT article. To see what I mean, we need to travel briefly to the 1990s and talk about the horrible genocide in Rwanda.

Let's pick up that discussion with this statement in the NYT article:

Nor was Mrs. Clinton a memorable player on Rwanda. Former White House officials say that no one — not the national security team, not the president, not the first lady — was seriously pushing for American military intervention to stop or slow the unfolding genocide there; the administration’s focus was on confronting the ethnic bloodshed in the Balkans. Mrs. Clinton declined to comment on Rwanda.

Was it really true that Sen. Clinton did not involve herself in any meaningful way during the deplorable Rwanda genocide - something her husband's administration got enormous criticism for from human rights groups and the liberals of the 1990s? Let's just say that President Bill Clinton disagrees. As Michael Crowley pointed out at TNR's blog The Stump:

But I was most struck to see that when asked about the Rwandan genocide, "Mrs. Clinton declined to comment." It's odd enough that Hillary would agree to discuss 1990s foreign policy but then simply refuse to discuss a world-historical atrocity that occurred on her husband's watch (and whose lessons still resonate in Darfur and undoubtedly other places to come). But it's extra-intriguing because Rwanda is one case where Bill has explicitly said that Hillary disagreed with him. Per a Dec. 10 Boston Globe blog item from Iowa:

...using a more somber tone, [Bill] explained that [Hillary] had wanted the United States to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of people died in a genocide that lasted just a few months.

Clinton has often said that not acting in Rwanda was one of his biggest regrets. It's a decision, he said, for which he continues to try to make amends. Had he listened to his wife, Clinton said, things might have been different.

"I believe if I had moved we might have saved at least a third of those lives," he said. "I think she clearly would have done that."

He went on to explain how America, which did intervene in the former Yugoslavia, could only take on so much at once. But not acting in Rwanda, he suggested, was a mistake his wife wouldn't make.

Why does this matter? Well, Dr. Rice was one of the key officials in the Clinton administration who refused to take a stand in favor of muscular U.S. action to prevent or reduce the scale of the Rwandan genocide - the kind of action she advocates for today. In fact, she displayed the kind of poor judgment she appears to be criticizing today, in contrast to First Lady Clinton who showed much better foreign policy judgment than her, despite lacking Washington Establishment EliteTM status among the Foreign Policy Villagers in DC. Dr. Rice was not alone on this either. Anthony Lake - another key Obama advisor - was not very different. You don't have to take my word for it. You can just read the Sep 2001 Atlantic Monthly article by another current Obama foreign policy advisor Samatha Power, titled "Bystanders to Genocide". Let's start with some extracts from the article to lay out the background:

In the course of a hundred days in 1994 the Hutu government of Rwanda and its extremist allies very nearly succeeded in exterminating the country's Tutsi minority. Using firearms, machetes, and a variety of garden implements, Hutu militiamen, soldiers, and ordinary citizens murdered some 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu. It was the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century.

A few years later, in a series in The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch recounted in horrific detail the story of the genocide and the world's failure to stop it. President Bill Clinton, a famously avid reader, expressed shock. He sent copies of Gourevitch's articles to his second-term national-security adviser, Sandy Berger. The articles bore confused, angry, searching queries in the margins. "Is what he's saying true?" Clinton wrote with a thick black felt-tip pen beside heavily underlined paragraphs. "How did this happen?" he asked, adding, "I want to get to the bottom of this." The President's urgency and outrage were oddly timed. As the terror in Rwanda had unfolded, Clinton had shown virtually no interest in stopping the genocide, and his Administration had stood by as the death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands.


In March of 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, President Clinton issued what would later be known as the "Clinton apology," which was actually a carefully hedged acknowledgment. He spoke to the crowd assembled on the tarmac at Kigali Airport: "We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred" in Rwanda.

This implied that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough. In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term "genocide," for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing "to try to limit what occurred." Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.


The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about "never again," many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen. In examining how and why the United States failed Rwanda, we see that without strong leadership the system will incline toward risk-averse policy choices. We also see that with the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Rwanda taken off the table early on—and with crises elsewhere in the world unfolding—the slaughter never received the top-level attention it deserved. Domestic political forces that might have pressed for action were absent. And most U.S. officials opposed to American involvement in Rwanda were firmly convinced that they were doing all they could—and, most important, all they should—in light of competing American interests and a highly circumscribed understanding of what was "possible" for the United States to do.

What does all of this have to do with Susan Rice? Let's read on:

On April 14 The New York Times reported the shooting and hacking to death of nearly 1,200 men, women, and children in the church where they had sought refuge. On April 19 Human Rights Watch, which had excellent sources on the ground in Rwanda, estimated the number of dead at 100,000 and called for use of the term "genocide." The 100,000 figure (which proved to be a gross underestimate) was picked up immediately by the Western media, endorsed by the Red Cross, and featured on the front page of The Washington Post. On April 24 the Post reported how "the heads and limbs of victims were sorted and piled neatly, a bone-chilling order in the midst of chaos that harked back to the Holocaust." President Clinton certainly could have known that a genocide was under way, if he had wanted to know.

Even after the reality of genocide in Rwanda had become irrefutable, when bodies were shown choking the Kagera River on the nightly news, the brute fact of the slaughter failed to influence U.S. policy except in a negative way. American officials, for a variety of reasons, shunned the use of what became known as "the g-word." They felt that using it would have obliged the United States to act, under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention. They also believed, understandably, that it would harm U.S. credibility to name the crime and then do nothing to stop it. A discussion paper on Rwanda, prepared by an official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and dated May 1, testifies to the nature of official thinking. Regarding issues that might be brought up at the next interagency working group, it stated,

1. Genocide Investigation: Language that calls for an international investigation of human rights abuses and possible violations of the genocide convention. Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterdayGenocide finding could commit [the U.S. government] to actually "do something." [Emphasis added.]

At an interagency teleconference in late April, Susan Rice, a rising star on the NSC who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?" Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. "We could believe that people would wonder that," he says, "but not that they would actually voice it." Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, "If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant."


During the entire three months of the genocide Clinton never assembled his top policy advisers to discuss the killings. Anthony Lake likewise never gathered the "principals"—the Cabinet-level members of the foreign-policy team. Rwanda was never thought to warrant its own top-level meeting. When the subject came up, it did so along with, and subordinate to, discussions of Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Whereas these crises involved U.S. personnel and stirred some public interest, Rwanda generated no sense of urgency and could safely be avoided by Clinton at no political cost. The editorial boards of the major American newspapers discouraged U.S. intervention during the genocide. They, like the Administration, lamented the killings but believed, in the words of an April 17 Washington Post editorial, "The United States has no recognizable national interest in taking a role, certainly not a leading role." Capitol Hill was quiet. Some in Congress were glad to be free of the expense of another flawed UN mission. Others, including a few members of the Africa subcommittees and the Congressional Black Caucus, eventually appealed tamely for the United States to play a role in ending the violence—but again, they did not dare urge U.S. involvement on the ground, and they did not kick up a public fuss. Members of Congress weren't hearing from their constituents. Pat Schroeder, of Colorado, said on April 30, "There are some groups terribly concerned about the gorillas ... But—it sounds terrible—people just don't know what can be done about the people." Randall Robinson, of the nongovernmental organization TransAfrica, was preoccupied, staging a hunger strike to protest the U.S. repatriation of Haitian refugees. Human Rights Watch supplied exemplary intelligence and established important one-on-one contacts in the Administration, but the organization lacks a grassroots base from which to mobilize a broader segment of American society.

This was not the only time that Dr. Rice displayed her exemplary Establishment "experience". For example, as late as May 2000 we had this report:

Washington has taken not one but several contradictory approaches to the interrelated crises now unfolding in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- that tragedy masquerading as a country that was formerly known as Zaire. Policymakers agree that something needs to be done about the first general war in Africa since decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but none of the approaches that have been proposed seems very promising. Most seem like the triumph of hope over experience.


Go to the State Department and officials will tell you on background that Holbrooke is pushing a policy that they do not endorse. Secretary Albright's protigi [sic] Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has, during her tenure, staunchly supported Rwanda -- one of the principal belligerents in the Congo war. Holbrooke has been less partisan. But he seems convinced that, much as he did at Dayton, he will be able by force of will to engage the various parties -- Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, the Congolese government and the rebel factions. This conviction seems to his detractors to be at best like the triumph of hope over experience, and at worst just grandstanding.

Holbrooke's defenders argue that the State Department's violently pro-Rwanda policy -- one in which the U.S. has done virtually nothing to try to compel the regime in Kigali to curtail its abuses -- is not just ineffective, as it was when the crisis was restricted to Rwanda and its border areas, but has become dangerous now that a general war has broken out across so much of Central Africa. Holbrooke, they insist, may not have half of Susan Rice's background, but he at least has the wit and the vision to see that something radical needs to be done.

Of course, by the time Samantha Power wrote her must-read article in Atlantic Monthly over a year later (Sep 2001), Susan Rice (and Anthony Lake) claimed to have seen the error of their "experience":

Lake is further confounded by his slow processing of the moral stakes of the genocide. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized control, in July, several million Hutu refugees, including many of those responsible for the genocide, fled to Zaire and Tanzania. With a humanitarian crisis looming, Lake took control, spearheading a multilateral aid effort. "There are people dying," his colleagues remember his saying. "The President wants to do this, and we don't care what it takes." In December of 1994 Lake visited putrid mass graves in Rwanda. He does not understand how, after 800,000 people were killed, he could have felt angry but not at all responsible. "What's so strange is that this didn't become a 'how did we screw this up?' issue until a couple years later," he says. "The humanitarian-aid mission did not feel like a guilt mission."


Susan Rice, Clarke's co-worker on peacekeeping at the NSC, also feels that she has a debt to repay. "There was such a huge disconnect between the logic of each of the decisions we took along the way during the genocide and the moral consequences of the decisions taken collectively," Rice says. "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." Rice was subsequently appointed NSC Africa director and, later, assistant secretary of state for African affairs; she visited Rwanda several times and helped to launch a small program geared to train selected African armies so that they might be available to respond to the continent's next genocide. The American appetite for troop deployments in Africa had not improved.

[To their credit, both Lake and Dr. Rice acknowledged their failures. However, I found it interesting that Holbrooke was still fighting Dr. Rice in the late 1990s when new slaughters erupted in Africa. So, it's not clear to me when exactly she decided to "come down on the side of dramatic action", but I will mention a couple of examples below.]

Fast forward to Oct 2004, when Dr. Rice co-authored a piece with colleague Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution:

No More Rwandas

The US should follow Europe's lead and help the African Union create a rapid reaction force


As Iraqis prepare to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their liberation from Saddam Hussein's terrible rule, many Africans will commemorate a far more somber date – the tenth anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, which began April 6, 1994, and killed at least 800,000 innocent men, women and children....

Fast forward to Oct 2006 and to a genocide in Sudan (Darfur):

Some foreign policy analysts are calling for military action to stop genocide in Sudan. Susan Rice says Sudan will only respond to the threat of an attack; and if an attack is necessary, she advocates bombing strategic targets like airfields and blockading Sudan's port.

Rice says the United States has the moral responsibility to stop genocide wherever it occurs.

Melissa Block talks with Rice, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration

Let's just say that I am gratified that Dr. Rice realized that her "experience" and judgment in the 1990s was severely lacking on a major foreign policy issue despite her degrees and Establishment status - in comparison to then First Lady Hillary Clinton's common-sense judgment (which she has in plenty, as imperfect as she is). Therefore, it is only apt to label the following passages in the NYT article rather farcical, given how completely devoid of irony Dr. Rice's statements are:

But other administration officials, as well as opponents of Mrs. Clinton, are skeptical that the couple’s conversations and her 79 trips add up to unique experience that voters should reward. She was not independently judging intelligence, for the most part, or mediating the data, egos and agendas of a national security team. And, in the end, she did not feel or process the weight of responsibility.

Susan Rice, a National Security Council senior aide and State Department official under Mr. Clinton who now advises Mr. Obama, said Mrs. Clinton was not involved in “the heavy lifting of foreign policy.” Ms. Rice also took issue with a recent comment by a Clinton campaign official that Mrs. Clinton was “the face of the administration in foreign affairs.”

“Making tough decisions, responding to crises, making the bureaucracy implement decisions that they may not want to implement — that’s the hard part of foreign policy,” Ms. Rice said. “That’s not what Mrs. Clinton was asked or expected to do as first lady.”

As I said, it's just dripping with irony. So, I'm not particularly convinced that Dr. Rice or some of her other Washington Establishment EliteTM colleagues advising Sen. Obama have demonstrated the kind of reliable foreign policy experience or judgment worth celebrating. As for Sen. Obama himself, neither his statements/actions on Iraq, nor on Iran, provide any confidence whatsoever that he somehow has displayed better judgment as a key member of the Washington Establishment (i.e., a U.S. Senator who can't stop talking about bipartisanship and non-partisanship) than Sen. Clinton has. After all:

(a) There is reasonable doubt as to whether Sen. Obama would have voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution if he had been in the U.S. Senate at the time. Everything he has done in the U.S. Senate on Iraq has been almost 100% in lock-step with Sen. Clinton.

(b) The whole attack from Sen. Obama and Sen. Edwards on Sen. Clinton for her support for Kyl-Lieberman is highly misleading or false and there is far less to that vote than meets the eye. Further, Sen. Obama - who was a no-show for a vote that he later declared to be of earth-shaking significance - has taken positions that are largely consistent with the spirit of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment.

I will try to return to other aspects of Healy's article later, time permitting, but it is clear to me that Sen. Obama has conceded the "experience" argument to Sen. Clinton in multiple ways - and the more he touts his Washington Establishment advisors from the Clinton administration, the more he reminds people that Sen. Clinton is winning this argument. Not to mention, his campaign's unacceptable reaction to Benazir Bhutto's death (whether or not it was in response to a question of a political nature) only shows him to be on shaky ground compared to Sen. Clinton.

eriposte :: 6:45 AM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!