War Stories

The Pentagon Insults Hillary Clinton

Big mistake.

Hillary Clinton

The extraordinary exchange of letters between Sen. Hillary Clinton and the undersecretary of defense for policy may turn out to be a signal event in the congressional debate over the Iraq war—and possibly in the 2008 presidential election.

The undersecretary’s letter to Clinton embodies the administration’s contempt for Congress, Democrats, anyone named Clinton, and—implicitly, in its tone—anyone who falls in these categories and is also a woman. It is the sort of letter that could arouse resentment among lots of senators, even Republicans—and among lots of female voters, especially those who are all too familiar with the condescension of powerful men.

For those of you who haven’t been following in the blogs, here’s the back story. On May 22, Clinton sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, requesting a briefing—for the relevant oversight committees, if not for her personally—about contingency plans for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

On July 16—eight weeks later—she received a reply from the undersecretary of defense for policy, Eric Edelman, saying that he was writing on behalf of Secretary Gates. After a page of boilerplate, Edelman got to the point:

Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. … Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risk in order to achieve compromises of national reconciliation. …

He concluded:

I assure you, however, that as with other plans, we are always evaluating and planning for possible contingencies. As you know, it is long-standing departmental policy that operational plans, including contingency plans, are not related outside of the department.I appreciate your interest in our mission in Iraq, and would be happy to answer any further questions.

In effect, Edelman was telling her three things. First, you’re practically a traitor for even asking these questions. Second, maybe we do have contingency plans for withdrawal, but we’re not going to tell you about them. Third, run along now, little lady, I’ve got work to do.

Today, Clinton wrote a second letter to Gates, informing him that this underling Edelman—”writing on your behalf”—seems to believe “that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies.” Calling his letter “outrageous and dangerous,” Clinton wondered whether it “accurately characterizes your views as secretary of defense.” She then renewed her request for the briefing, “classified if necessary,” and added, as a kicker, “I would appreciate the courtesy of a prompt response directly from you.”

A couple basic facts need to be highlighted here.

First, Clinton’s original letter to Gates was not at all extraordinary. Members of key congressional committees—on armed services, intelligence, or the defense subcommittees of the budget and appropriations panels—make such requests all the time, and they are generally honored. (Clinton is a member of the Senate armed services committee.) In the range of sensitive material that officials routinely present to these committees, contingency planning for an Iraqi troop withdrawal is fairly low-grade.

Second, these contingency plans do exist. In February 2006, U.S. Army generals in Iraq started asking military archivists to dig up official records from the 1970s involving troop withdrawals from Vietnam. The generals were interested in procedures for disposing and transferring military property, the precise sequence of demobilization—the basic logistics of pulling out. The intention was explicit: They knew they would, at some point, be staging a withdrawal from Iraq. Once it began, it could spin out of control, so they needed an advance plan for an orderly exit. (I wrote about this request in an article for the Atlantic a year ago.)

Clinton was expressing the same concern as the generals. “Congress must be sure,” she wrote in her May letter to Gates, “that we are prepared to withdraw our forces without any unnecessary danger.” She mentioned nothing about withdrawing now or even soon: She asked only whether the military now has a blueprint for when the time to leave comes. There’s nothing heretical or traitorous about this line of inquiry, either. Even President Bush acknowledges that U.S. troops will leave Iraq at some point.

As a discrete episode, this spat may soon fade away. Gates, who may well have no more than a dim awareness of Edelman’s letter (or of Clinton’s initial request), will probably eat the proverbial humble pie by sending over someone with a classified briefing—or maybe even delivering it himself.

But as a political symbol, the incident may have greater endurance. Senators put up with a lot of evasion and deceit from the executive branch, but one thing they will not tolerate is being explicitly left out of the loop. In his letter to Clinton, Edelman not only said she had no business in the loop, he all but accused of her treason for asking to be let in. If senators feel the slightest tug of solidarity (and they tend to, on matters of senatorial privilege), they may rally around their trampled colleague. The sense of insult may spill over into their feelings about the war in general and perhaps strengthen, if just slightly, the ranks of the opposed.

As for the broader electorate, women have famously mixed feelings about Hillary Clinton, but many of them tend to drop their caveats when they sense that her womanhood is under attack. In her 2000 Senate campaign, a turning point came toward the end of the candidates’ debate in Buffalo, when her Republican opponent, Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio, charged her podium and pestered her to sign a pledge to take no soft money.

Maureen Dowd wrote (purchase required) for the next day’s New York Times about a woman in the audience who switched to Hillary at that moment because Lazio “suddenly conjured up the image of her husband, waving a credit card receipt in her face, yelling at her that she had overcharged, his eyes bulging, his veins popping, screaming at her to return everything to the store.”

Dowd may have slightly overdramatized, but the woman in Buffalo was not alone. Polls the following week showed a huge spike in support for Clinton among suburban women, who until the debate had been divided or slightly leaning toward Lazio.

Eric Edelman wasn’t yelling at Clinton, but he was patronizing her (“I appreciate your interest in our mission in Iraq. …”), shooing her away from serious men’s business—and that may, in its own way, decisively rankle.

Who is this Edelman? He’s had a long career in the diplomatic corps, going back to the Reagan years and continuing through the presidencies of the first Bush and Clinton. He’s been ambassador to Turkey and Finland, deputy chief of mission to the Czech Republic, special assistant to secretaries of state. None of these posts has required him to deal much with pesky senators. Professionally cultivated indifference may have ratcheted upward to hostility during the first two and a half years of George W. Bush’s first term, when he served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security. Like so much else poisonous about this administration, then, the clash can be traced back to Cheney.