Shadow Government

What if the Clinton White House had done this? [Updated]

From time to time, Josh Gerstein of Politico has observed that the mainstream media has glossed over things the Obama administration has done without subjecting it to the firestorm of protest that greeted a comparable (often less egregious) action by the Bush administration.

Some of the items are quite serious: the targeted drone strike on an American citizen or the creative interpretation of the UNSCR on Libya or the prominent role in sensitive national security policymaking given to domestic political advisors. Others are less so: the frequent gaffes like misspelling "Ohio" or the priority given to golf games or the record-breaking prominence of fund-raising.

The issue is not necessarily that President Obama deserves condemnation for any of this. Rather, the issue is that the Obama administration seems to have no idea how generous the media's double-standard is.

A recent report made me think that it is not only the Bush administration that is the victim of this double standard. The Clinton administration has some grounds for a complaint, too.

In a lengthy article exploring the extraordinary influence over policy wielded by Valerie Jarrett, the New York Times reports on an incident I have never heard about before:

"Ms. Jarrett cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing, with her pixie haircut and designer clothes. Aides say she can be thoughtful in little ways that matter, enlisting the president to rally staff members after political or personal setbacks. But she can also be imperious -- at one event ordering a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter -- and attached to the trappings of power in a way some in the White House consider unseemly for a member of the staff.

A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.

She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed." (emphasis added)

This is a remarkable anecdote, and it immediately called to mind one of the signature anecdotes from the Clinton White House. I wrote about it in my book because it took on iconic status as a symbol of the poor civil-military relations of the early Clinton era. Early on in the Clinton tenure, Lieutenant General McCaffrey was over at the White House for a meeting. As I described it:

"While there, he greeted a young Clinton staffer who allegedly replied, "I don't talk to the military." McCaffrey presumably related this back at the Pentagon, for the story quickly spread throughout the Beltway community as apparent confirmation that the new commander in chief -- who once wrote that he loathed the military -- was surrounding himself with advisors who were viscerally anti-military. The White House, which was already reeling from the backlash against the president's proposal to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military, quickly scrambled to undo the public relations damage of the petty snub. In a highly choreographed move, the president invited General McCaffrey to jog with him at a summit meeting, and the distinguished military officer agreed, thus graciously conferring absolution on his commander in chief."

Now civil-military experts can spend a lot of time in the bar debating how much of the McCaffrey story really happened the way it is usually reported, and if it did, how significant it really was. But there is no debate about how much attention the anecdote got (a google search on "I don't talk to the military" and clinton generates some 3,690,000 hits).

Is there any doubt that if George Stephanopoulos had confused a 4-star general with a waiter it would have gotten huge play? (Yes, I know there were also reports about the Clinton team asking the White House military aides to serve canapes and drinks at social functions. That, too, got lots of attention, and in some ways might seem a better analogue to the Jarrett incident. But those particular military aides were substantially more junior and, in fact, had social duties as an important part of their regular functions, in addition to their core mission of carrying the "nuclear football," so I give the Clinton White House more slack on that.)

The context is different. As Tom Ricks has noted, the Obama White House has very fraught relations with the military, but they are nowhere near as fraught as Clinton's were in 1993. Moreover, the Clinton-era snub seemed intentional whereas it was (apparently) only inadvertent in the Obama-era case.

Still, if the Jarrett anecdote gets no more commentary than the brief discussion I am giving it here, I think my fellow Clinton White House veterans can be excused if we start a new meme: "what if the Clinton White House had done this?"

Update: A friend who follows civil-military affairs just as closely as I do but with a better memory than mine, pointed out to me that the Jarrett incident was reported at the time. It is possible I saw one of those earlier reports and just forgot about it -- my 90-plus-year-old parents like to say that their forgettery overwhelms their memory, and perhaps I am heading into the same zone. But I think it is more likely that I didn't notice at the time and, certainly, the incident did not get extensive coverage the way the McCaffrey incident did.

In my post, I suggested two possible reasons for this, both of which I think are true. First, the McCaffrey anecdote was intrinsically more toxic and also fit more readily into an existing narrative of a President who "loathed" the military. Second, there is an undeniable double-standard, with the press giving the Obama Administration a pass for things they would have framed far more negatively in previous Administrations; as the Politico editor put it, the mainstream media is "quite smitten with the Obamas" and their coverage obviously reflects that fact.

My friend suggested yet a third reason: Gen Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, whom Jarrett confused with a waiter, went out of his way to defuse the incident. I think this was an important factor, and perhaps co-equal with the other two. At least initially, the McCaffrey incident went viral (if that term applies to those early days of the internet) because someone spread the story back in the halls of the Pentagon. The most likely person to spread that story was General McCaffrey himself. After it became notorious, McCaffrey collaborated with the Clinton White House in tamping down the furor, but it is plausible that McCaffrey did less than Chiarelli did in the initial stages to minimize the incident.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

New thinking in the 2012 GOP platform

No surprise that as a former George W. Bush appointee, I support the 2012 Republican Platform. But it is a surprise (at least to me) that there is actually a good bit to be excited about. After all, platforms are not often the stuff of "wow" moments. There are usually few surprises or wholly new ideas expressed every four years. Sometimes this is because the party's nominee is pursuing a second term, and sometimes it is because there just isn't a lot of change in a party's outlook.

To be sure, much of the 2012 platform echoes the 2008 platform, but where it differs, where it expands into new ideas, it is in my view exciting and inspiring. My focus, of course, is the foreign policy plank, and in particular, the section on international assistance. This section is not simply a re-tread of previous ideas.

It begins like last time by pointing out the generosity of the American people both in their publicly funded aid as well as aid from private sources. But it goes into greater detail to note the various ways that Americans are generous in their private giving of their time and talent and treasure -- and this aid comprises far more than what comes out of the USG's foreign aid budget. I just wish the point had been made in this section about the valuable role of the U.S. military in not only securing the delivery of aid but sometimes in the actual dispensing of it. Not to mention the benefits that accrue to a world where a superpower helps to keep or restore the peace, and keeps shipping lanes open without which there can be no free trade. To put a fine point on it for the sake of our heroic military (who will not brag on themselves), we were treated to this picture recently of Army Sgt. John Gebhardt comforting an Afghan child. Do yourself a favor and read the short item on this.

Next, the plank takes a swipe at the outdated way in which most donors have dispensed aid over the years: by providing aid to governments whether as budget support or toward programs that are treating symptoms and not the causes of poverty, disorder and tyranny. In the latter case, we must remember that money is fungible, so just because a program is good does not mean it is wise. Our focus should be on the causes of what we want to rid the nations of who ask for our assistance. The U.S. has done better than most at targeting aid toward people and worthy programs that attack those root causes, but there is still much more to do in terms of reform, and this plank deals with that as well.

I appreciate that the party emphasizes that the best way to assist people overseas is not through government. Rather, the plank points to charity and the great engine of growth and prosperity that is the private sector.

Of great importance is that that party makes a very clear statement about the purpose of foreign assistance: it must serve our national interests in the form of promoting the "peaceful development of less advanced and vulnerable societies in critical parts of the world." It is that simple. U.S. taxpayer dollars are not a kitty from which politicians should feel free to do good with other people's money. Aid programs whose goals are not measureable and that do not serve national interests -- specifically defined -- are not just a waste of money but a dereliction of duty. There is no shortage of congressmen and NGOs who can easily come up with warm fuzzy reasons why we should do something, but that's not the question. Again, just because something might be good does not mean it is wise for the government to do it.

And the platform points to historical successes that can not only inspire us but guide us. Aid that has helped strengthen democracy and private enterprise in Latin America and East Asia should inspire us to put aid where it works: in places where leaders and citizens have determined to follow the path of free markets and free people.

And speaking of that approach, rather than provide a detailed list of programs (as was the case in the 2008 platform) the plank provides unequivocally the party's foundation for all USG assistance: "U.S. aid should be based on the model of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, for which foreign governments must, in effect, compete for the dollars by showing respect for the rule of law, free enterprise, and measurable results. In short, aid money should follow positive outcomes, not pleas for more cash in the same corrupt official pockets."

So that is what we should do. What should we not do with international assistance? Here the plank takes a hard shot at the Obama administration's practices over the last three and a half years. The plank criticizes the administration for basing its aid policies on its own cultural agenda as it has imposed its views on abortion and the homosexual rights agenda. It has blocked the participation of faith-based groups that were so key to many of the successes of the Bush administration. The conclusion of this section points to a clear policy change: "We will reverse this tragic course, encourage more involvement by the most effective aid organizations, and trust developing peoples to build their future from the ground up."

There are a number of other sections in the foreign policy plank that express new ideas, new ways of thinking, and that call for new policies. But this plank on international assistance is truly exceptional in that it calls for a reform of our foreign assistance philosophy. It elevates free people and free markets as the starting point; it says "treat the causes, not simply the symptoms."

It is quite appropriate, therefore, that the plank on foreign policy that deals with international assistance is titled "American Exceptionalism" because this approach truly is exceptional, like the United States of America.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages