Sunday, March 09, 2008

McCain: (Bill) Clinton fails commander-in-chief test

Memo to Obama: Since Hillary has grown so fond of repeating that John McCain "crosses the commander-in-chief threshold," why not ask her whether she agrees with McCain's repeated portrayals of her husband as unfit to be commander-in-chief? What does McCain's judgment of Bill Clinton suggest about the quality of her 'experience' by her husband's side?

If there's one consistent element in McCain's foreign policy pronouncements from the mid-nineties to the present (besides a reflex to respond to perceived threats with force or the threat of force), it's contempt for Bill Clinton's conduct of foreign policy. In McCain's telling, every crisis has the same cast of characters: tin-pot dictator as Hitler, and Bill Clinton as Neville Chamberlain with a drawl.

Throughout Clinton's presidency and well into Bush's, McCain went out of his way not just to criticize Clinton's policies but to accuse him of the most humiliating traits that could be ascribed to a commander in chief: self-doubt, vacillation, and valuing political expediency above the national interest.

The broad theme of McCain's assessments of Bill Clinton's conduct of foreign policy is nicely captured in an 6/3/96 op-ed he published in support of Bob Dole's candidacy in the LA Times:
But in this campaign's foreign policy debates, I hope the media recognize the gross disservice they will do if they fail to critically examine the Clinton foreign policy, which is broadly dismissed overseas for its incoherence, contradictions and perpetual if directionless motion. Those flaws are a direct consequence of the president's style of foreign policy leadership, which less often locates the national interest in the security imperatives of a superpower than it does in Clinton's reelection prospects.
In a foreign policy lecture at Kansas State University on March 15, 1999, McCain accused the Clinton Administration of "two pronounced flaws: strategic incoherence and self-doubt" - the former a "primary cause" of the more rhetorically satisfying latter:

The second fault I find with the administration, it's [sic] self-doubt, is obviously related and a primary cause of its strategic incoherence. Often evident in administration policies is a mystifying uncertainty about how to act in a world where we are the only superpower. When the administration stands mute and undecided about where and how they want to lead the world, they exhibit, to friend and foe alike, an identity crisis, an image of America an existential crisis, who are we and why are we here?
[snip]
The most prevalent symptoms of the administration's self-doubt have been its spasmodic, vacillating and reactive approaches to world problems, and a tendency to put off resolution of the most difficult problems, often substituting photo op diplomacy for meaningful action....In Iraq, of course, these symptoms have been on full display.

McCain in this speech saved his most damaging personal allegation for a now-forgotten 'crisis,' U.S. transfer of technology to China:

In addition to their strangely relaxed attitude toward what looks to be an extraordinarily damaging espionage incident, they have tolerated, indeed, insisted upon extremely liberal licensing practices for transferring dual use technology to China. It is a sad sign of the times, that the best face that can be put on these lapses in judgment is that they were mistakenly committed for the sake of a stable bilateral relationship,

Far more distressing is the charge that they are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

"Greater shame than any President has ever suffered"? Have fun in the general, Hillary.

A couple of months later, while U.S. forces were bombing Serbia to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo, McCain spoke in favor his own resolution authorizing the President to use any means necessary to end the Serbian occupation. The resolution was a finger in Clinton's eye, because the President had preemptively ruled out the use of ground forces and had not asked for the authority McCain sought to give him. McCain cast his "support' as a means to uphold the powers of the Presidency notwithstanding the unworthiness of the current occupant - and once again charged Clinton with placing political expediency before the national interest:
Although I can speak only for myself, I believe the sponsors of this resolution offered it to encourage the President to do what almost every experienced statesmen has said he should do - prepare for the use of ground troops in Kosovo if they are necessary to achieve victory. Regrettably, the President would rather not be encouraged. But his irresponsibility does not excuse Congress'. I believe it is now imperative that we pass this resolution to distinguish the powers of the Presidency from the muddled claim made upon them by the House of Representatives. .....

I regret to say that I have on more than one occasion suspected, as I suspect today, that the President and some of us among the loyal opposition suffer from the same failing. It seems to me that the President, in his poll driven approach to his every responsibility, fails to distinguish the office he holds from himself. And some of us in Congress are so distrustful of the President that we feel obliged to damage the office in order to restrain the current occupant. Both sides have lost the ability to tell the office from the man.

Publicly and repeatedly ruling out ground troops may be smart politics according to the President's pollster, but it is inexcusably irresponsible leadership. In his determination to put politics over national security, the President even acquiesced to the other body's attempt to deprive him of his office's authority. He sent a letter promising that he would seek Congress' permission to introduce ground troops in the unlikely event he ever discovers the will to use them.
In October 2002, McCain used his contempt for Bill Clinton not only to spur George Bush on to invade Iraq, but to go to the brink of war with North Korea after U.S. intelligence reported evidence that the North Koreans had been seeking the means to enrich uranium in apparent violation of the "Agreed Framework" negotiated by Clinton in 1994 to halt the North Koreans' pursuit of nuclear weapons. McCain began a Washington Post op ed with best-worn bludgeon in any hawk's rhetorical arsenal, casting Clinton as you-know-who and implicitly warning Bush not to follow in his spineless predecessor's slippered footsteps:
I believe it is peace for our time . . .
Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.
-- British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Sept. 30, 1938

As we contemplate preemptive action to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring the world's worst weapons, it's worth understanding how the temptation to go home and get a nice quiet sleep led directly to the inevitable crisis we now face on the Korean peninsula -- where North Korea's acknowledgment of a secret nuclear weapons program demonstrates the perils of entrusting American security to dangerously flawed agreements with rogue regimes.

This crisis first came to a head in 1994 with North Korea's threat to weaponize plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear facility. After months of American concessions, the Clinton administration agreed to build North Korea two civilian nuclear reactors and provide it with a half-million tons of oil annually until the reactors were built. Totalitarian North Korea became the largest recipient of American assistance in Asia as we propped up a regime that might otherwise have collapsed.

Serious people can differ honorably over the morality of feeding and funding a regime that starves, oppresses, tortures and kills its own people while threatening to destroy its southern neighbor, in order to prevent that regime from developing nuclear weapons. But there is scant moral refuge for those accommodationists who believe even today that we can concede our way out of this crisis. A decade of appeasement and assistance to one of the world's worst regimes provided it the time and the means to develop weapons that now threaten America and our friends....

The Clinton administration's lack of credibility in dealing with North Korea emboldened the regime to defy America. The Bush administration's credible threat of force against Iraq is rallying American and international opinion in our favor, and has put Baghdad on notice. Pyongyang is watching.
Arguably, most of the Clinton actions that McCain made a career of lambasting had relatively good outcomes. The Agreed Framework did mostly freeze North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons until the Bush Administration, overreacting to evidence that Pyongyang had taken some steps toward preparing to enrich uranium, cut off fuel oil shipments and broke off negotiations. The bombing of Iraqi military installations in 1998 effectively destroyed what was left of Iraq's military capability. The air war against Serbia forced Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo and ultimately led to his being voted out of office and tried as a war criminal before the World Court. All the stranger, then, that Hillary would laud Bill's most relentless foreign policy critic as having "crossed the commander-in-chief threshold."

Plainly, Hillary wants at McCain. Against him, she could parry like it's 1999 -- and perhaps actually win a debate about the conduct of policy -- domestic and foreign -- in the 1990s. But still her flattery of McCain amounts to an implicit repudiation of her husband's international legacy.

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