Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

01 June 2007

Senator Clinton’s Political Epitaph

On Wednesday the New York Times published an investigative report on the evolution of Senator Clinton’s Iraq war position. Among other things, the article gives us the best available information on what led to her decision to authorize war in 2002. Clinton herself refused to be interviewed for the story.

What the article reveals should shock both Clinton’s supporters and her New York constituents. If Democrats have any sense left, the article should also spell the end of her presidential bid. Her political epitaph will read “She didn’t do her homework.”

The facts are simple and stark. As we all know now, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that the Bush Administration used to justify the War in Iraq was full of doubt and caveats. Strong dissenting voices disagreed that Saddam had, or even was developing, weapons of mass destruction. The dissenting voices included the State Department’s intelligence service. As a whole, the NIE did not support the notion that Saddam had anything to do with Al Qaeda or September 11. Yet Clinton did not read the NIE before her vote.

Let me repeat that. Before voting on the most important issue that any elected representative ever faces—the decision to go to war—Senator Clinton did not read the most authoritative official report on the supposed justification for war.

Although the NIE was classified at the time, all senators had the right and ability to read it. The Capitol had set up two special locations where senators could read it. (Three heavily redacted versions of the NIE have since been declassified and are available on the Web.)

Every senator had ten days to read the full report after it was made available and before the vote on the war resolution. Three days before the vote, Senator Bob Graham (D., Fla.), then Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “forcefully” urged all Democrats to read it at a party caucus that Clinton attended.

The entire NIE was only 90 pages long. Yet like a derelict student, Clinton did not do her homework. When asked recently at political rally whether she had read it, she reportedly said only that she had been briefed on it.

That simple word—“briefed”—hides all the hubris and inattention that has laid our nation low. Apparently the question of war or peace was not important enough for Clinton to do her homework.

At the time she was not yet a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. So her staff had no authorization to read the NIE. In saying she had been briefed on it, Clinton must have been referring to the oral briefings that various intelligence services (largely controlled by the Bush White House) had given senators. On the most important issue in a generation, she simply didn’t care enough about the facts to study them herself.

To understand how damning that admission is, you have to know something about legal education. Senator Clinton is a graduate of Yale Law School, one of our nation’s most prestigious centers of legal education. Like every other law school in the nation, Yale requires every graduate to take a course in constitutional law. (Today, Yale’s students take that course in their very first year of study, when it will make the greatest impression.) That course teaches students, among other things, how strong the president’s powers are in the realm of war and foreign policy.

As a result of her study at an elite law school, Senator Clinton had to know that her vote on the war resolution was her first, last and only chance to have an impact as senator on the fateful choice between war and peace, let alone the conduct of any war to follow. It goes without saying that a legal education teaches the importance of facts. Yet Clinton didn’t do her homework.

The New York Times article has other important insights. It notes that Clinton voted against the Levin Amendment to the war authorization, which would have required the president to engage in further diplomacy before going to war. That vote belies her current claim that she expected the president to exhaust diplomacy before war and he disappointed her—a claim that has been very effective for her politically. The article also outlines how her pivot on Iraq policy followed the leadership of people like Congressman Jack Murtha (D. Pa.), the Democratic ex-marine and ex-hawk, and her own husband. As the article shows, Clinton was a follower, not a leader, both in authorizing the war and in coming belatedly to oppose it.

But the article’s most damning revelation is her failure to read the crucial report before her vote.

Why didn’t she read it? Apparently politics were more important to her than substance. After September 11, she worried whether the public would perceive her—or any woman—as strong enough to lead the nation in wartime. An experienced political warhorse, she had a good idea how the Bush Administration would tar anyone who opposed it as weak. She was certainly right on that score. So she voted for war, apparently with politics and her future bid for the presidency foremost in her mind.

That is precisely why Senator Clinton, or anyone else like her, should never reach the White House. On the most crucial decision in her political career, she put politics above substance, her career above the facts. For all the record reveals, she made a conscious decision not to learn the facts that might have informed her most important decision as senator.

In that respect she is no different from Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who have shunned the facts and let politics and ideology govern.

Unfortunately, Bush and his neocons were not alone. Only six of 100 senators reportedly read the NIE before voting to authorize war. That is an appalling figure. It shows that only six percent of the members of our most elite legislative body are worthy of governing us. And now one of the unworthy ones, Senator Clinton, wants to be president.

The bitter fruits of this “facts be damned” approach are plain for all to see. Our nation is losing its power, prestige and moral fiber because our leaders think that politics and Washington are all a great game. They prefer political perceptions, which they can control by “spin,” to reality, which is less tractable. They are playing with our lives.

If we want to restore our nation’s greatness, we have to make a decisive break with that sort of pathological leadership. We need leaders who face facts, who study them carefully—in person—before making important decisions. Between the two front runners for the Democratic nomination—Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton—there should be no doubt now who is the best choice. Unlike Clinton, Senator Obama does his homework.

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  • At Wednesday, June 6, 2007 at 9:55:00 AM EDT, Blogger bft said…

    Senators were privileged to read the document though their staff could not. Six senators read it. A procedural question: would a senator who did read it be allowed to quote from it, or refer to its contents, in a public debate? Article I Section 6 of the US Constitution says "for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other Place." What does this protect them from? What does it not protect them from?

  • At Monday, June 11, 2007 at 8:23:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    This is an excellent question. I was late in moderating/posting it only because I was on vacation and incommunicado for a week.

    Although I am not an expert on constitutional law, I suspect that Commenter bft is right. Publishing classified information like the NIE would be a criminal offense for us ordinary mortals, but members of Congress have absolute immunity for what they say on the floors of their respective Houses.

    That immunity is vital if members of Congress are to do their jobs (of representing their various constituencies) free from political interference and legal harassment. It's the political equivalent of the free speech that we Americans enjoy under the First Amendment.

    Yet despite their immunity, members of Congress are not entirely free to say whatever they please. Each House can discipline its own members and can even expel a member by a two-thirds vote. See Article I, Sec. 5, Cl. 2. Members also have to take the political heat for their actions.

    Had any member of Congress done what Commenter bft suggests, you can imagine what the Bush Administration would have done. It would have tarred the member publicly as a traitor, subversive and aider of the enemy. It then would have had the appropriate House start disciplinary proceedings.

    Of course that claim would have been nonsense: nothing in the intelligence community's doubts about the reasons for war gave the "enemy" any idea of when, where or how we might strike. But the brave member would have had to defend himself or herself vigorously in the "court" of public opinion and perhaps in disciplinary proceedings in his/her House. (Remember, the Republicans held a majority of both Houses when the war resolution was debated.)

    All this still doesn't excuse the appalling basic facts. Only six of 100 Senators actually read the NIE, and no member of Congress had the political courage to take Commenter bft's suggestion and try to stop the rush to war by making doubts in the NIE public.

    I cannot imagine any signer of our Declaration of Independence or Constitution failing to inform the public of a false causus belli, without regard to personal or political consequences.

    Unfortunately, we live in an age of mediocrities. The giants of our nation's founding are long gone. That's why we need to look so hard our current presidential candidates to discern even a glimmer of real leadership.


  • At Sunday, October 14, 2007 at 7:01:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Obama not only does his homework, but he has the honesty, integrity, and ability to unite our country and bring the respect of the world back to our fine nation.

    Vote Obama.


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