Friday, March 7, 2008

Larry Johnson on Clinton and Obama's Preparedness

This is an excellent piece by Larry Johnson, the former CIA officer (and contemporary of Valerie Plame Wilson) on the issue of Clinton's preparedness, and Obama's lack thereof. Johnson has a number of good pieces at his blog, No Quarter (link below):

Obama and His Advisors Not Ready for Prime Time
By Larry Johnson on March 6, 2008 at 12:16 PM in Current Affairs

Thanks to Alegre for an insightful video clip that summarizes succinctly the inept incompetence of the Obama foreign policy team. Susan Rice, a senior Obama foreign policy advisor, who served on the National Security Council and later as the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department under Bill Clinton. We don’t know for sure what Barack or Hillary would do with a “3 a.m.” phone call, but we don’t have to wonder about Susan Rice. She sits on her hands doing nothing.

During her time on the National Security Council, as the senior person responsible for giving the President policy options on Africa, Rice reprised the role of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. She sat by while more than one million Rwandans were butchered in a bloody genocide. She let the phone ring and declined to offer any answer that would have saved lives. And she is one of Barack’s key advisors.

But Rice is wrong about Hillary. Hillary is quite ready to answer the 3am phone call. As someone who has been directly involved with such calls during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, I do know what I am talking about.

As I have said before, I have had the opportunity to brief Senator Clinton twice on terrorism and Iraq during the last three years. During the course of my career at the CIA, State Department, and as a consultant, I have briefed in one form or fashion more than 60 members of Congress, a Vice President, and a President. I have participated in briefings for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military commanders. I entered my first meeting with Hillary with strong reservations about her competence (based entirely on what I had heard and read in the media). I walked out of that meeting very impressed. Hands down, I found her to be the most impressive person I had had the privilege to brief.

Why was I impressed? First and foremost, she listened. I have briefed folks who get the 1000-yard stare–they drift off and start thinking about something else. I also have briefed folks who get the panicked look from not understanding what I am talking about. Hillary was different. She listened intently, but she also grasped the substance and nuance of the issues we were discussing. Second, she asked tough questions that showed me she was genuinely searching for viable policy options. I had a similar experience with Senator Joe Biden, only that was during a hearing.

But unlike many members of Congress who rely on some aide sitting at their side to pump them with questions and information, Hillary could think on her own. She did not need “Foreign Policy for Dummies.”

Hillary also is one of the few members of Congress who understood the difference between Special Forces and and Special Operations Forces. You would be shocked at the number of Senators and Representatives who are supposed to exercise oversight of the military and do not understand this basic point.

When we talk about the “3 a.m.” call we are talking about crisis response operations. Back in July of 1990, the United States was involved in a covert effort to resolve peacefully a coup that involved Libyan-backed terrorists. We had quietly inserted U.S. personnel into the country, the situation was settled without further loss of life, and we were trying to figure out how to withdraw our personnel without exposing them publicly. Our concern about how to cover their withdrawal was made moot when word came that Saddam had just invaded Kuwait. We were taking down one crisis communications task force in the State Department Ops Center as a new one, dedicated to Iraq/Kuwait, was being formed.

What is not well known is that President Bush (senior), Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and James Baker had been briefed two days earlier in the White House situation room on the impending invasion of Iraq. They were warned that Saddam would likely invade unless the United States made a public declaration to warn him away. The President and his advisors declined at the time to issue such a warning because they believed that if they did so and Saddam invaded, the U.S. would have no choice but to respond militarily. With hindsight we now know that Bush, Cheney, Powell, and Baker screwed up that phone call.

When the phone rings and the President is alerted to the problem, you will want a President whose first instinct is to understand the implication of the threat for U.S. national interests. I know that Hillary understands that point. Barack, by contrast, did not even understand the importance of holding a hearing on NATO’s role in Afghanistan even though he had the full authority to do so.

Once you hang up the phone you need a leader who understands the bureaucratic tools and resources that are available to be brought to bear on the problem. On this point in particular Hillary is light years ahead of Barack. Barack would be hard pressed to explain the difference between DIA, CIA, and NSA. Hillary knows that Washington machinery intimately.

And finally there is the issue of advisors. Let me state again for the record: I am not trying out for a spot on Hillary’s foreign policy team. I am not seeking a job in her administration. I do not want to make the personal sacrifice required to go back into government service–I would have to take a pay cut and work too many long hours. But Hillary is surrounded with a better group of foreign policy advisors. Barack has the likes of Susan Rice and Tony Lake–two of the key folks who failed to respond in a timely matter to the disaster in Rwanda. Hillary, by contrast, has Dick Holbrooke, who helped bring an end to the killing in the Balkans.

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