Vali Nasr’s extensive Foreign Policy essay, “The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan“, like most political inside stories, has one real purpose, to assign blame for a disaster and credit to the people who truly understood what was happening but weren’t listened to.
Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the eternal Secretary of State in waiting, another Clinton man, are the heroes, and the White House and Obama are the villains.
The Clinton Gang were right on every single issue, from opposing the Afghanistan surge to opposing an Afghanistan deadline, to supporting negotiations with the Taliban at the right and not at the wrong time and supporting the takedown of Bin Laden… while Obama’s people were always wrong.
The purpose here is to disengage Hillary Clinton from the upcoming disaster in Afghanistan in preparation for her 2016 run. As in Benghazi, the theme is that it isn’t her fault. It’s Obama’s fault. It’s the fault of the military, the CIA and the White House.
Once you keep in mind that this is basically a preemptive bid for freeing Hillary from responsibility while sabotaging the careers of Obama loyalist rivals, there are some interesting things here.
It was to court public opinion that Obama first embraced the war in Afghanistan. And when public opinion changed, he was quick to declare victory and call the troops back home. His actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home.
This concedes what I and many conservative analysts have said about Obama’s pivot to Afghanistan all along. It was cynical, political and incompetent.
The White House, however, did not want to try anything as audacious as diplomacy. It was an art lost on America’s top decision-makers. They had no experience with it and were daunted by the idea of it.
While running for president, Obama had promised a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy: America would move away from Bush’s militarized foreign policy and take engagement seriously. When it came down to brass tacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, Clinton was the lonely voice making the case for diplomacy.
From the leaks we’ve heard, it sounds like Obama tried a lot of diplomacy, but castigating Obama as Mr. Drone who always listened to Brennan and Petraeus instead of Hillary should play well among the liberal base.
During the 2009 strategic review, Clinton had supported the additional troops but was not on board with the deadline Obama imposed on the surge, nor did she support hasty troop withdrawals. Clinton thought those decisions looked a lot like cut-and-run and would damage America’s standing in the world.
So Hillary was conveniently on both right sides of every issue, even when she’s for it before she was against it… etc. Again this is an attempt at distancing her from Obama’s disaster. This is the narrative being set now, which means Clinton and Co. do expect disaster in Term 2.
Clinton got along well with Obama, but on Afghanistan and Pakistan the State Department had to fight tooth and nail just to have a hearing at the White House. Had it not been for Clinton’s tenacity and the respect she commanded, the State Department would have had no influence on policymaking whatsoever. The White House had taken over most policy areas: Iran and the Arab-Israeli issue were for all practical purposes managed from the White House.
That last part is rather interesting. Did Hillary really have no input on Israel and was all that run out of the White House… or is Hillary saying that to appeal to the pro-Israel crowd by distancing herself from yet another unpopular element of the Obama era?
Turf battles are a staple of every administration, but the Obama White House has been particularly ravenous. Add to this the campaign hangover: Those in Obama’s inner circle, veterans of his election campaign, were suspicious of Clinton. Even after Clinton proved she was a team player, they remained concerned about her popularity and feared that she could overshadow the president.
That part is probably true, but essays like this prove that Clinton was a decided backstabber and that they had reason to be suspicious of her.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until September 2011, told me Clinton “did a great job pushing her agenda, but it is incredible how little support she got from the White House. They want to control everything.”
So what job is Mike looking for in the Clinton Administration 2.0?
Holbrooke never succeeded. Clinton did — but it was often a battle. It usually happened only when it finally became clear to a White House that jealously guarded all foreign policymaking — and then relied heavily on the military and intelligence agencies to guide its decisions — that these agencies’ solutions were no substitute for the type of patient, credible diplomacy that garners the respect and support of allies. Time and again, when things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Clinton because it knew she was the only person who could save the situation.
Save us, Hillary, you are our only hope.
On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly stressed that he wanted to get things right in the broader Middle East, reversing the damage that had resulted from the previous administration’s reliance on faulty intelligence and its willingness to apply military solutions to problems it barely understood.
Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.
That part is likely somewhat true, but the military clearly did not have a lot of sway here. Brennan might have.
Obama Inc. looking out for number 1 is not a major shocker but this is an admission that essentially Obama’s foreign policy success is a media myth.
The White House seemed to see an actual benefit in not doing too much. It was happy with its narrative of modest success in Afghanistan and gradual withdrawal — building Afghan security forces to take over from departing U.S. troops. The goal was to spare the president the risks that necessarily come with playing the leadership role that America claims to play in this region.
But what’s the Holbrooke/Hillary answer?
Holbrooke answered, “Pakistan needs $50 billion, not $5 billion.”
This is what’s on tap for 2016.