Obama camp targets Clinton experience claims

In a memo, a surrogate for Barack Obama says Hillary Clinton's assertions about her foreign policy experience aren't supported by her record.


Alex Koppelman
March 11, 2008 7:56PM (UTC)

Barack Obama's campaign appears to be sticking by its promise to go on the offensive against Hillary Clinton. The Obama camp's latest volley is one of its toughest yet.

It has just released a memo written by Greg Craig, a lawyer who ran the State Department's policy planning office for a time during the Clinton administration and was an assistant to the president and special counsel in the Clinton White House as he helped defend then President Bill Clinton against impeachment.

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In the memo, Craig writes, "When your entire campaign is based upon a claim of experience, it is important that you have evidence to support that claim. Hillary Clinton's argument that she has passed 'the Commander-in-Chief test' is simply not supported by her record." He then launches into a point-by-point examination of her record and claims, and delivers a harsh conclusion: "Barack Obama has a very simple case. On the most important commander in chief test of our generation, he got it right, and Senator Clinton got it wrong ... And Barack Obama does not use false charges and exaggerated claims to play politics with national security."

The Clinton campaign has already responded with its own tough critique. In its memo, the Clinton camp says, "Once again, Senator Obama is proving the point that his campaign is about 'just words.'

"Despite making hard end-dates a centerpiece of his campaign, Senator Obama's top foreign policy adviser said those plans are not anything he'll rely on as president. Despite repeated denials and five different parsed statements by his campaign that have been called misleading by media reports, his top economic adviser did in fact dismiss Senator Obama's NAFTA criticism to the Canadian government as just political rhetoric."

Both memos can be read in full after the jump.

The Obama campaign's memo:

When your entire campaign is based upon a claim of experience, it is important that you have evidence to support that claim. Hillary Clinton's argument that she has passed "the Commander- in-Chief test" is simply not supported by her record.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton played an important domestic policy role when she was First Lady. It is well known, for example, that she led the failed effort to pass universal health insurance. There is no reason to believe, however, that she was a key player in foreign policy at any time during the Clinton Administration. She did not sit in on National Security Council meetings. She did not have a security clearance. She did not attend meetings in the Situation Room. She did not manage any part of the national security bureaucracy, nor did she have her own national security staff. She did not do any heavy-lifting with foreign governments, whether they were friendly or not. She never managed a foreign policy crisis, and there is no evidence to suggest that she participated in the decision-making that occurred in connection with any such crisis. As far as the record shows, Senator Clinton never answered the phone either to make a decision on any pressing national security issue -- not at 3 AM or at any other time of day.

When asked to describe her experience, Senator Clinton has cited a handful of international incidents where she says she played a central role. But any fair-minded and objective judge of these claims -- i.e., by someone not affiliated with the Clinton campaign -- would conclude that Senator Clinton's claims of foreign policy experience are exaggerated.

Northern Ireland:

Senator Clinton has said, "I helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland." It is a gross overstatement of the facts for her to claim even partial credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland. She did travel to Northern Ireland, it is true. First Ladies often travel to places that are a focus of U.S. foreign policy. But at no time did she play any role in the critical negotiations that ultimately produced the peace. As the Associated Press recently reported, "[S]he was not directly involved in negotiating the Good Friday peace accord." With regard to her main claim that she helped bring women together, she did participate in a meeting with women, but, according to those who know best, she did not play a pivotal role. The person in charge of the negotiations, former Senator George Mitchell, said that "[The First Lady] was one of many people who participated in encouraging women to get involved, not the only one."

News of Senator Clinton's claims has raised eyebrows across the ocean. Her reference to an important meeting at the Belfast town hall was debunked. Her only appearance at the Belfast City Hall was to see Christmas lights turned on. She also attended a 50-minute meeting which, according to the Belfast Daily Telegraph's report at the time, "[was] a little bit stilted, a little prepared at times." Brian Feeney, an Irish author and former politician, sums it up: "The road to peace was carefully documented, and she wasn't on it."

Bosnia:

Senator Clinton has pointed to a March 1996 trip to Bosnia as proof that her foreign travel involved a life-risking mission into a war zone. She has described dodging sniper fire. While she did travel to Bosnia in March 1996, the visit was not a high-stakes mission to a war zone. On March 26, 1996, the New York Times reported that "Hillary Rodham Clinton charmed American troops at a U.S.O. show here, but it didn't hurt that the singer Sheryl Crow and the comedian Sinbad were also on the stage."

Kosovo:

Senator Clinton has said, "I negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo." It is true that, as First Lady, she traveled to Macedonia and visited a Kosovar refugee camp. It is also true that she met with government officials while she was there. First Ladies frequently meet with government officials. Her claim to have "negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo," however, is not true. Her trip to Macedonia took place on May 14, 1999. The borders were opened the day before, on May 13, 1999.

The negotiations that led to the opening of the borders were accomplished by the people who ordinarily conduct negotiations with foreign governments -- U.S. diplomats. President Clinton's top envoy to the Balkans, former Ambassador Robert Gelbard, said, "I cannot recall any involvement by Senator Clinton in this issue." Ivo Daalder worked on the Clinton Administration's National Security Council and wrote a definitive history of the Kosovo conflict. He recalls that "she had absolutely no role in the dirty work of negotiations."

Rwanda:

Last year, former President Clinton asserted that his wife pressed him to intervene with U.S. troops to stop the Rwandan genocide. When asked about this assertion, Hillary Clinton said it was true. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that this ever happened. Even those individuals who were advocating a much more robust U.S. effort to stop the genocide did not argue for the use of U.S. troops. No one recalls hearing that Hillary Clinton had any interest in this course of action. Based on a fair and thorough review of National Security Council deliberations during those tragic months, there is no evidence to suggest that U.S. military intervention was ever discussed. Prudence Bushnell, the Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for Africa, has recalled that there was no consideration of U.S. military intervention.

At no time prior to her campaign for the presidency did Senator Clinton ever make the claim that she supported intervening militarily to stop the Rwandan genocide. It is noteworthy that she failed to mention this anecdote -- urging President Clinton to intervene militarily in Rwanda -- in her memoirs. President Clinton makes no mention of such a conversation with his wife in his memoirs. And Madeline Albright, who was Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, makes no mention of any such event in her memoirs.

Hillary Clinton did visit Rwanda in March 1998 and, during that visit, her husband apologized for America's failure to do more to prevent the genocide.

China:

Senator Clinton also points to a speech that she delivered in Beijing in 1995 as proof of her ability to answer a 3 AM crisis phone call. It is strange that Senator Clinton would base her own foreign policy experience on a speech that she gave over a decade ago, since she so frequently belittles Barack Obama's speeches opposing the Iraq War six years ago. Let there be no doubt: she gave a good speech in Beijing, and she stood up for women's rights. But Senator Obama's opposition to the War in Iraq in 2002 is relevant to the question of whether he, as Commander-in-Chief, will make wise judgments about the use of military force. Senator Clinton's speech in Beijing is not.

Senator Obama's speech opposing the war in Iraq shows independence and courage as well as good judgment. In the speech that Senator Clinton says does not qualify him to be Commander in Chief, Obama criticized what he called "a rash war ... a war based not on reason, but on passion, not on principle, but on politics." In that speech, he said prophetically: "[E]ven a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." He predicted that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would "fan the flames of the Middle East," and "strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda." He urged the United States first to "finish the fight with Bin Laden and al Qaeda."

If the U.S. government had followed Barack Obama's advice in 2002, we would have avoided one of the greatest foreign policy catastrophes in our nation's history. Some of the most "experienced" men in national security affairs -- Vice President Cheney and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others -- led this nation into that catastrophe. That lesson should teach us something about the value of judgment over experience. Longevity in Washington, D.C. does not guarantee either wisdom of judgment.

Conclusion:

The Clinton campaign's argument is nothing more than mere assertion, dramatized in a scary television commercial with a telephone ringing in the middle of the night. There is no support for or substance in the claim that Senator Clinton has passed "the Commander-in-Chief test." That claim -- as the TV ad -- consists of nothing more than making the assertion, repeating it frequently to the voters and hoping that they will believe it.

On the most critical foreign policy judgment of our generation -- the War in Iraq -- Senator Clinton voted in support of a resolution entitled "The Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of U.S. Military Force Against Iraq." As she cast that vote, she said: "This is probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make -- any vote that may lead to war should be hard -- but I cast it with conviction." In this campaign, Senator Clinton has argued -- remarkably -- that she wasn't actually voting for war, she was voting for diplomacy. That claim is no more credible than her other claims of foreign policy experience. The real tragedy is that we are still living with the terrible consequences of her misjudgment. The Bush Administration continues to cite that resolution as its authorization -- like a blank check -- to fight on with no end in sight.

Barack Obama has a very simple case. On the most important commander in chief test of our generation, he got it right, and Senator Clinton got it wrong. In truth, Senator Obama has much more foreign policy experience than either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan had when they were elected. Senator Obama has worked to confront 21st century challenges like proliferation and genocide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He possesses the personal attributes of a great leader -- an even temperament, an open-minded approach to even the most challenging problems, a willingness to listen to all views, clarity of vision, the ability to inspire, conviction and courage.

And Barack Obama does not use false charges and exaggerated claims to play politics with national security.

The Clinton campaign's memo:

Over the last few weeks, Sen. Obama has successfully undermined his credibility with a series of statements to reporters and voters that have been contradicted by the facts. Unfortunately, he's doing it again today by having his campaign issue a fundamentally misleading attack aimed at glossing over the doubts Americans have about his readiness to be Commander-in-Chief. Once again, Senator Obama is proving the point that his campaign is about "just words." Despite making hard end-dates a centerpiece of his campaign, Senator Obama's top foreign policy adviser said those plans are not anything he'll rely on as president. Despite repeated denials and five different parsed statements by his campaign that have been called misleading by media reports, his top economic adviser did in fact dismiss Senator Obama's NAFTA criticism to the Canadian government as just political rhetoric.

And now today, Senator Obama is at it again, sending a false attack memo from his campaign making claims that are contradicted by the facts. Still reeling from its losses in Ohio and Texas, the Obama campaign has come out swinging, taking aim at Senator Clinton's considerable foreign policy experience with false claims and baseless attacks. After last week's defeats, the Obama campaign faced a choice: try to convince voters that Senator Obama is ready to take the 3am phone call in a positive way or try to tear down Senator Clinton's accomplishments.

Considering that his foreign policy advisor, Susan Rice, cited Senator Obama's "legislation on ethics reform" when asked this morning about his foreign policy experience, it is clear that the Obama campaign is unable to make a positive case for its candidate's experience. They have chosen to attack and today's memo continues the pattern of statements contradicted by the facts. Given the credibility gap his campaign has developed over the last few weeks, these latest attacks today should not be believed.

There is a reason that thirty former Generals and Admirals have endorsed Senator Clinton -- they know she is prepared to lead this nation as Commander in Chief with strength and experience on day one. Here are the facts about Hillary's experience.

Northern Ireland:

The Obama campaign claims George Mitchell, the person in charge of the investigation, supports their view that Hillary's claims about Northern Ireland are exaggerated. John Hume, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work on Northern Ireland:

I can state from firsthand experience that she played a positive role for over a decade in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland; Anyone criticizing her foreign policy involvement should look at her very active and positive approach to Northern Ireland and speak with the people of Northern Ireland who have the highest regard for her and are very grateful for her very active support for our peace process. George Mitchell, who is cited in the Obama memo as an authoritative source, told Katie Couric last night that Hillary played "a helpful and supportive role" in Northern Ireland that ended up making "a difference in the process." He described what Hillary has said about her role as "accurate."

More on Hillary's work in Northern Ireland HERE.

Kosovo:

Concerning Kosovo, the Obama memo -- citing their own advisors and supporters -- falsely claims that Hillary played no role in the larger effort to open the border to more refugees. Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords, lays out the facts:

It was dire in May 1999 when Hillary Clinton arrived in Macedonia. The government of Macedonia had slowed the flow of refugees from Kosovo to a trickle. After visiting refugees and gaining a first-hand assessment of the situation, the First Lady had intense talks with President Gligorov and Prime Minister Georgievski. In these talks, one in the Presidential Palace, another in the residence of the American Ambassador, Christopher Hill, Mrs. Clinton pressed the Macedonian government to fully open the border so that Kosovar Albanian refugees could flee the war zone to safety. She also committed herself to work with the government and people of Macedonia who also faced an emergency because of the threat to their own safety and stability. Hillary Clinton promised to take action to help the Macedonian economy. Returning to Washington, she pressed hard in the administration for action to support the Macedonians. She even contacted American business executives to ensure that American textile contracts in Macedonia were not canceled. There is no doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of those people I worked with in the Balkans at the time -- that her intense efforts resulted in easing a crisis of significant dimensions and contributed to saving many lives.

Hillary's trip to Kosovo in May 1999 took place during the air war over Kosovo. Despite concerns about security, she traveled to the international border on the edge of the war zone, and visited with refugees. More, including more testimonials, HERE.

Bosnia:

The Obama campaign has resorted to mocking Hillary's trip to Bosnia in 1996, belittling it as a U.S.O. tour and saying there was no danger. But Hillary toured the frontlines of the international peacekeeping mission. CNN reported:

At a second outpost, Camp Bedrock, Mrs. Clinton visited a M.A.S.H. unit, the only full-service U.S. Army hospital in Bosnia. The three-hour tour of the frontlines of the international peacekeeping mission were filled with the gritty reality of a military operation, a far cry from traditional first lady photo opportunities, and Mrs. Clinton seemed more than comfortable with that. [CNN, 3/25/99]

A day later, the Charleston Gazette reported that "Protected by sharpshooters, Hillary Rodham Clinton swooped into a military zone by Black Hawk helicopter Monday. This trip to Bosnia marks the first time since Roosevelt that a first lady has voyaged to a potential combat zone."

China:

The Obama campaign diminishes Hillary's historic speech in Bejing as meaningless. But her speech at the conference -- where she famously declared "women's rights are human rights" spurred real action. The AP reported:

Brazil has promised free cancer-screening exams for women. The United States is spending $ 1.6 billion to try to end domestic violence. South African President Nelson Mandela is setting up a unit in his office to monitor the status of women. A year after 189 states pledged to make equality of the sexes a reality in the 21st century, many governments are crediting the conference for their latest steps to help women. 'The momentum is on -- and this momentum is not only by women but even by governments and by men,' said Gertrude Mongella, secretary-general of the Fourth World Conference on Women that adopted a 150-page plan to achieve women's equality. Inspired by last September's U.N. conference in Beijing, five Mongolian women ran for parliament in June and won, bringing the total number of female legislators to seven out of 76. Women's groups in Zaire joined forces to try to change laws that bar women from traveling or opening bank accounts without their husbands' permission. [AP, 8/25/96]

Rwanda:

On Rwanda, the Obama campaign is eager to diminish Hillary's advocacy. Hillary visited to Rwanda in 1998 and her forceful public statements about the administration's failings. This is how she described the trip and the administration's followup in her book, Living History:

Expressing great regret for genocide in Rwanda and our legacy of slavery sent a message of concern and respect to Africans who confront the intertwined challenges of poverty, disease, repression, starvation, illiteracy and war. But Africa needs more than words; it needs investment and trade if its economics are ever going to develop. That requires both significant changes in most governments and a partnership with the United States. That's why the African Growth and Opportunity At, which Bill proposed and Congress passed, is so critical. It creates incentives for American companies to do business in Africa." [Living History, pg. 457]

The Obama campaign spends considerable time trying to "prove" that a private conversation between Hillary and President Clinton never happened.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton

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