The Silence of the Clintonistas

Why are Clinton’s foreign policy big shots so quiet about Iraq?

Madame Secretary speaks, everyone else stays mum
Madame Secretary speaks, everyone else stays mum

What do Anthony Lake, Samuel Berger, Warren Christopher, Richard Holbrooke, Strobe Talbott, William Perry, and William Cohen have in common? Well, obviously, they all had prominent foreign policy roles in the Clinton administration. What else? Not one of them has commented publicly on the Valerie Plame affair.

The only foreign policy honcho from the Clinton administration who has made her views known on this subject is Madeleine Albright (“I think it’s a terrible thing that happened”), and even Albright did so only once, on CNN. (Chatterbox is relying, here and throughout this column, on the Nexis news database.) Indeed, Clinton’s top-tier foreign policy domes—let’s call them the FPDs—have been amazingly quiet about the Iraq war in general. Bill Kristol, the partisan Republican hawk, has been more critical of the war’s conduct than most of them. So have less well-known Clintonistas like Leon Fuerth and Daniel Benjamin. Why should the FPDs, with their Democratic allegiance and their easy access to the media, be so reticent?

Before answering that question, let’s sort the FPDs into three categories:

Silent as the grave. Lake, Christopher, Talbott, and Perry have said virtually nothing about Iraq during the period under review, i.e., the past three months. Caveat: Christopher did write an op-ed stating that it was a bad idea to make Iraq a bigger priority than North Korea, but that was almost a year ago.

Sotto voce. Berger and Cohen have made a few critical comments here and there, but these have always been expressed very politely. Example: In a July 10 appearance on CNN, Berger said Bush’s erroneous State of the Union reference to Saddam’s purported uranium purchase “was obviously a serious screw-up,” but “the larger issue now is … to create a stable, peaceful Iraq.”

Pugilistic. Holbrooke and Albright are the exceptions, having voiced blunt criticisms of Bush’s Iraq policy. Rather bravely—perhaps even rashly—Holbrooke used the V-word in an Aug. 31 appearance on Fox News. “I think that Iraq, we have to be clear about this, is now shaping up,” Holbrooke said, “as the worst foreign policy problem that the United States has faced since the end of the Vietnam War.” Albright, in addition to commenting on Plame, said Oct. 16 on French (!) radio that Bush’s foreign policy “is not good for America, not good for the world,” adding, “I don’t understand why the war happened now. I would have liked to see us concentrate on Afghanistan.” You go, girl! (Albright’s comments were reported by Agence France Presse.)

Why are so many FPDs reluctant to criticize the Iraq war? Chatterbox discussed this matter with a few former Clinton aides, then synthesized their thoughts and his into several theories. One is that Democratic foreign policy types always worry about seeming weak. Another is that the FPDs are constrained from protesting the war’s bogus “weapons of mass destruction” rationale because they, too, thought Saddam was hiding chemical and biological weapons. Yet another is that the clubby bipartisanship of the foreign policy establishment, though spurned by most top-level Bushies, still holds sway over the FPDs and, indeed, most Democrats.

Added to these are some individual considerations. Both Berger and Cohen have a profit motive not to alienate the Bushies. Berger is co-chair (with Republican lobbyist Charles Black) of the Civitas Group, which helps companies win government contracts related to homeland defense. One of the firm’s board members is Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush’s gubernatorial chief of staff and until recently served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Cohen runs something called the Cohen Group, which helps “multinational clients explore opportunities overseas.” One of the countries the Cohen Group does business in is Iraq. Also, Cohen’s a Republican, albeit a moderate one.

Anthony Lake has kept a fairly low profile ever since his bruising and unsuccessful bid to win Senate confirmation as director of the CIA. As a former victim of partisan warfare, he’s said to have little taste for waging it. Christopher has never been much of a fighter and lately has been more absorbed by issues related to California, where he resumed residence after his stint in Foggy Bottom. (Christopher was fervently opposed to the recent gubernatorial recall.)

Perry was never a partisan to begin with, having been a Pentagon lifer prior to becoming defense secretary. Talbott is a patrician type who, as president of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, probably thinks it’s best to stay above the fray. (And anyway, his area of expertise is Russia, not the Middle East.)

Albright and Holbrooke each have a motive to hold the spotlight. For Albright, it’s to sell her recently published memoir, Madam Secretary. This isn’t to say that Albright would keep silent about Bush’s Iraq policy under different circumstances; rather, it’s that Albright has been making many media appearances lately to publicize her book, and obviously she’s going to be asked at each one what she thinks of the war. Holbrooke is probably influenced to some extent by ambition. Practically alone in this group (a possible exception is Strobe Talbott), Holbrooke has not yet risen as high in the government as he’s likely to go. He has not yet experienced the pleasure of holding the big brass ring in his palm. Holbrooke almost certainly aspires to be secretary of state or national security adviser in a future Democratic administration. (He’d be an excellent choice for either post.) Holbrooke is also a fairly rough-edged person, and he’s frequently been described as a rude arriviste. At the moment, though, Holbrooke’s gaucherie seems like a blessing.