Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dismissed Sen. Bernie Sanders questioning her qualifications to be President as “silly” — and looking at her résumé alone, she’d be right — but there is also the need to judge her performance in her various jobs.
What is troubling about Clinton’s record is that she has left behind a trail strewn with failures and even catastrophes. Indeed, her highest profile undertakings almost universally ended in disaster — and a person’s record should matter when voters are deciding whether to entrust him or her with the most powerful office on earth.
In other words, it’s not just a question of her holding one prestigious job or another; it’s also how well she did in those jobs. Otherwise, you have a case of the Peter Principle Squared, not just letting someone rise to the level of his or her incompetence, but in Clinton’s case, continuing to get promoted beyond her level of incompetence.
So, looking behind Clinton’s résumé is important. After all, she presents herself as the can-do candidate who will undertake small-scale reforms that may not move the needle much but are better than nothing and may be all that’s possible given the bitterly divided Congress.
But is Hillary Clinton really a can-do leader? Since she burst onto the national scene with her husband’s presidential election in 1992, she has certainly traveled a lot, given many speeches and met many national and foreign leaders — which surely has some value — but it’s hard to identify much in the way of her meaningful accomplishments.
Clinton’s most notable undertaking as First Lady was her disastrous health insurance plan that was concocted with her characteristic secrecy and then was unveiled to decidedly mixed reviews. Much of the scheme was mind-numbing in its complexity and — because of the secrecy — it lacked sufficient input from Congress where it found few enthusiastic supporters.
Not only did the plan collapse under its own weight, but it helped take many Democratic members of Congress with it, as the Republicans reversed a long era of Democratic control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Because of Hillary Clinton’s health-care disaster, a chastened Democratic Party largely took the idea of providing near-universal health-insurance coverage to Americans off the table for the next 15 years.
In Clinton’s next career as a senator from New York, her most notable action was to enthusiastically support President George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Clinton did not just vote to authorize the war in 2002, she remained a war supporter until 2006 when it became politically untenable to do so, that is, if she had any hope of winning the Democratic presidential nomination against anti-war Sen. Barack Obama.
Both in her support for the war in the early years and her politically expedient switch — along with a grudging apology for her “mistake” — Clinton showed very little courage.
When she was supporting the war, the post-9/11 wind was at Bush’s back. So Clinton joined him in riding the jingoistic wave. By 2006, the American people had turned against the war and the Republican Party was punished at the polls for it, losing control of Congress. So it was no profile-in-courage for Clinton to distance herself from Bush then.
Not Learning Lessons
Still, Clinton seemed to have learned little about the need to ask probing questions of Bush’s team. In November 2006, she completely misread Bush’s firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and replacing him with ex-CIA Director Robert Gates. Serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton bought the conventional wisdom that Gates’s nomination meant that Bush was winding down the Iraq War despite warnings that it actually meant the opposite.
If Clinton had done any digging, she could have discovered that Rumsfeld was dumped not because of his warmongering but because he backed his field generals — George Casey and John Abizaid — who wanted to rapidly shrink the US military “footprint” in Iraq. But Bush and his neocon advisers saw that as effectively an admission of defeat, so they got rid of Rumsfeld and recruited the more malleable Gates to front for their planned escalation or “surge.”
Not only did Consortiumnews.com spell out that reality in real time, but it also was explained by right-wing pundit Fred Barnes in the neocon Weekly Standard. As Barnes wrote, Gates “is not the point man for a boarding party of former national security officials from the elder President Bush’s administration taking over defense and foreign policy in his son’s administration. … Rarely has the press gotten a story so wrong.”
Barnes reported instead that the younger George Bush didn’t consult his father and only picked Gates after a two-hour face-to-face meeting at which the younger Bush got assurances that Gates was onboard with the neocon notion of “democracy promotion” in the Middle East and shared Bush’s goal of victory in Iraq. [The Weekly Standard, Nov. 27, 2006]
But the mainstream press — and much of Official Washington — loved the other storyline. A Newsweek cover pictured a large George HW Bush towering over a small George W. Bush. Embracing this conventional wisdom, Clinton and other Senate Armed Services Committee members brushed aside the warnings about Gates, both his troubling history at the CIA and his likely support for a war escalation.
In his 2014 memoir, Duty, Gates reflects on his 2006 nomination and how completely clueless Official Washington was. Regarding the conventional wisdom about Bush-41 taking the reins from Bush-43, Gates wrote about his recruitment by the younger Bush: “It was clear he had not consulted his father about this possible appointment and that, contrary to later speculation, Bush 41 had no role in it.”
Regarding the mainstream news media’s wrongheaded take on his nomination, Gates wrote: “There was a lot of hilarious commentary about a return to ’41’s’ team, the president’s father coming to the rescue, former secretary of state Jim Baker pulling all the strings behind the scenes, and how I was going to purge the Pentagon of Rumsfeld’s appointees, ‘clean out the E-Ring’ (the outer corridor of the Pentagon where most senior Defense civilians have their offices). It was all complete nonsense.”
Though Gates doesn’t single out Hillary Clinton for misreading the significance of his nomination, Gates wrote: “The Democrats were even more enthusiastic, believing my appointment would somehow hasten the end of the war. … They professed to be enormously pleased with my nomination and offered their support, I think mainly because they thought that I, as a member of the Iraq Study Group [which had called for winding down the war], would embrace their desire to begin withdrawing from Iraq.”
In other words, Hillary Clinton got fooled again.
Surging for Surges
Once installed at the Pentagon, Gates became a central figure in the Iraq War “surge,” which dispatched 30,000 more US troops to Iraq in 2007. The “surge” saw casualty figures spike. Nearly 1,000 additional American died along with an untold number of Iraqis. And despite another conventional wisdom about the “successful surge” it failed to achieve its central goal of getting the Iraqis to achieve compromises on their sectarian divisions.
Yet, the mainstream press didn’t get any closer to the mark in 2008 when it began cheering the Iraq “surge” as a great success, getting spun by the neocons who noted a gradual drop in the casualty levels. The media honchos, many of whom supported the invasion in 2003, ignored that Bush had laid out specific policy goals for the “surge,” none of which were achieved.
In Duty, Gates reminds us of those original targets, writing: “Prior to the deployment, clear benchmarks should be established for the Iraqi government to meet during the time of the augmentation, from national reconciliation to revenue sharing, etc.”
Those benchmarks were set for the Iraqi government to meet, but the goals were never achieved, either during the “surge” or since then. To this day, Iraq remains a society bitterly divided along sectarian lines with the out-of-power Sunnis again sidling up to Al Qaeda-connected extremists and even the Islamic State.
But Clinton didn’t have the courage or common sense to recognize that the Iraq War “surge” had failed. After Obama appointed her as Secretary of State — as part of a naïve gesture of outreach to a “team of rivals” — Clinton fell back in line behind Official Washington’s new favorite conventional wisdom, the “successful surge.”
In the end, all the Iraq War “surge” did was buy President Bush and his neocon advisers time to get out of office before the failure of the Iraq War became obvious to the American public. Its other primary consequence was to encourage Defense Secretary Gates, who was kept on by President Obama as a gesture of bipartisanship, to conjure up another “surge” for Afghanistan.
In that context, in Duty, Gates recounts a 2009 White House meeting regarding the Afghan War “surge.” He wrote: “The exchange that followed was remarkable. In strongly supporting the surge in Afghanistan, Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary [in 2008]. She went on to say, ‘The Iraq surge worked.’
“The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.” Obama’s aides disputed Gates’s suggestion that the President indicated that his opposition to the Iraq “surge” was political, noting that he had always opposed the Iraq War. The Clinton team never challenged Gates’s account.
In other words, having been an Iraq War hawk when it mattered — from 2002-06 — Hillary Clinton changed direction when that was politically expedient, apologizing for her “mistake,” but then returned to her enthusiasm for the war by accepting the benighted view that the “surge worked.”
Clinton’s enthusiasm for “surges” also influenced her to side with Gates and General David Petraeus, a neocon favorite, to pressure Obama into a “surge” for Afghanistan, sending in an additional 30,000 troops on a bloody, ill-fated “counterinsurgency” mission. Again, the cost in American lives was about 1,000 soldiers but their sacrifice did little to shift the war’s outcome.
Again and again, Hillary Clinton seemed incapable of learning from her costly errors — or perhaps she just understands that the politically safest course is to do what Washington’s neocon-dominated foreign policy establishment wants done. That way you get hailed as a serious thinker in the editorial pages of The Washington Post and at the think-tank conferences.
Virtually all the major columnists and big-name pundits praised Clinton’s hawkish tendencies as Secretary of State, from her escalating tensions with Iran to tipping the balance of the Obama administration’s debate in favor of a “regime change” mission in Libya to urging direct US military intervention in Syria in pursuit of another “regime change” there.
On the campaign trail, Clinton seeks to spin all these militaristic recommendations as somehow beneficial to the United States. But the reality is quite different.
Regarding Iran, in 2010, Secretary Clinton personally killed a promising initiative sponsored by Brazil and Turkey (at President Obama’s request) to get Iran to swap much of its low-enriched uranium for radiological medical tests. Instead, Clinton followed the path laid out by Israel and the neocons, ratchet up pressure on Iran and keep open the “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” option.
It is noteworthy that the diplomatic agreement with Iran to restrain its nuclear program and to give up much of its low-enriched uranium required Clinton’s departure from the State Department in 2013. I’m told that Obama understood that he needed to get her out of the way for the diplomacy to work.
But Clinton’s signature project as Secretary of State was another war of choice, this time the “regime change” in Libya resulting in the grisly murder of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the descent of Libya into a failed state beset with terrorism, including the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, and more recently the emergence of the Islamic State.
Clinton and her “liberal interventionist” allies sold the Libyan war as a “responsibility to protect” mission — or R2P — but the propaganda about Gaddafi’s supposed plans for “genocide” against the Libyan people was wildly exaggerated and fit with a long and sorry pattern of US officials deceiving the US public.
According to all accounts, Obama was on the fence about the wisdom of joining European nations in undertaking the Libyan “regime change” and it was Secretary Clinton who tipped his decision toward going to war. The US military then provided the crucial technological infrastructure for the war to go forward. Without the US involvement, the “regime change” in Libya wouldn’t have happened.
As the conflict raged, Clinton’s State Department email exchanges revealed that her aides saw the Libyan war as a chance to pronounce a “Clinton doctrine,” bragging about how Clinton’s clever use of “smart power” could get rid of demonized foreign leaders like Gaddafi. But President Obama seized the spotlight when Gaddafi’s government fell.
But Clinton didn’t miss a second chance to take credit on Oct. 20, 2011, after militants captured Gaddafi, sodomized him with a knife and then murdered him. Appearing on a TV interview, Clinton celebrated Gaddafi’s demise with the quip, “we came; we saw; he died.”
However, with Gaddafi and his largely secular regime out of the way, Islamic militants expanded their power over the country. Many, it turned out, were terrorists, just as Gaddafi had warned. Some were responsible for killing Ambassador Stevens.
Over the next five years, Libya — a once prosperous North African country — descended into anarchy with dozens of armed militias and now three competing governments jockeying for power. Meanwhile, the Islamic State expanded its territory around the city of Sirte and engaged in its signature practice of beheading “infidels,” including a group of Coptic Christians slaughtered on a beach.
Yet, on the campaign trail, Clinton continues to defend her instigation of the Libyan war, disputing any comparisons between it and the Iraq War by rejecting any “conflating” of the two. Yet, the two disasters — while obviously having some differences — do deserve to be conflated because they have many similarities. Both were wars of choice justified by false and misleading claims and having terrible outcomes.
Clinton’s rejection of “conflating” the two wars has another disturbing element to it, the suggestion that she is incapable of extracting lessons from one situation and applying them to another. That inability to analyze, engage in self-criticism, and thus avoid repeating the same mistakes may indeed be a disqualifying characteristic for someone seeking the US presidency.
So, is Hillary Clinton “qualified” to be President of the United States? While her glittering résumé may say one thing, her record — a litany of misjudgments, miscalculations and catastrophes — may say something else.