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Smears and Tears: How Obama's National Security Week Turned Into the Mendacity of Hype

03/26/2008 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The past week marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War and the milestone of the 4,000th American soldier killed in that disastrous adventure. Commemorating and underscoring the urgent need for a new policy direction, Senator Clinton delivered a serious and detailed address clearly setting out her vision for and commitment to ending the conflict. Her approach includes a direct critique of the most glaring failures of the Bush administration: its unwillingness to use political pressure and intense international diplomacy to effect a resolution of the outstanding differences that have driven the region into a proxy war within Iraq with the United States manning and supporting combatants on all sides. For years American generals have been telling the administration, the Congress, and the public that Iraq is not a situation that lends itself to a military solution and will only be resolved politically. While the focus of American opprobrium has been on the Iraqi government for its failure to find those solutions, Senator Clinton, in her speech, is the first presidential candidate to spell out in a precise plan the elements required for an international effort, including co-opting and controlling the enablers of the ongoing violence in Iraq, to promote political reconciliation and reform.

My wife, former CIA agent, Valerie, and I accompanied Senator Clinton to Philadelphia the day after her speech. Valerie pointed out in her comments how, in the run up to the invasion, the administration lied to the Congress and the American people about the nature and the seriousness of the weapons of mass destruction threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration's willful twisting of intelligence was crucial to manipulation of the press, the public and the Congress. Not until months later, after the invasion, did the facts of the administration's distortion of intelligence slowly begin to trickle out, partly as a result of my own efforts in a New York Times opinion piece in July 2003.

Understandably, Senator Obama's speech on race relations overshadowed Senator Clinton's policy pronouncements. While laudable in intent, Senator Obama would never have made the speech had his relationship with fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright not become a public relations nightmare for him. Among other things, Wright preaches that the United States government unleashed the HIV virus in Africa to kill blacks. (Having worked in Africa for much of my adult life, including with one of the early AIDS researchers, Dr. Jonathan Mann, I can safely say that there is absolutely no evidence to sustain Wright's reckless charge.) Obama had no choice but to address his 20-year close relationship with a man he still considers, as he made clear in his speech, a mentor.

In the immediate aftermath, the Obama campaign dispatched several foreign policy surrogates to blitz the airwaves, supposedly to offer alternatives to Clinton's recommendations. But that's not what happened. Instead, Hillary was subjected to yet another round of personal abuse, denigration and ridicule rather than a serious debate of the issues. The real subtext of the Obama campaign was to attack Hillary in order to distract from Obama's association with his anti-American preacher. National security went un-addressed. Rather than filling in his largely absent record, Obama had his surrogates engage in what can be termed the mendacity of hype.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, an otherwise serious person, made the extraordinarily silly comment belittling two-term Senator Clinton by comparing her experience to that of Mamie Eisenhower and his own travel agent after offering an analysis of the situation in Iraq and the path to a resolution that essentially mirrored the basic points Senator Clinton made in her speech. Brzezinski was not asked and did not explain why Obama early embraced him as an adviser and openly praised him, but recently has coldly distanced himself because of Brzezinski's controversial views on Israel.

Nor did Brzezinski address the bloody issue of mercenary forces like Blackwater, which Obama states should be allowed to remain part of our military force in Iraq -- a position challenged by Senator Clinton, who has called for phasing them out. In place of practical policies, Brzezinski offered his vague "sense" that Obama is a person who understands change before it takes place and is therefore capable of making "transcendental" decisions, whatever that might mean. For a man with a reputation as tough-minded, Brzezinski retreated into cloudy abstraction in his defense of Obama, who, according to the Senator, he, Brzezinksi, knows hardly at all.

Senator John Kerry, another Obama surrogate, offered the startling observation that Obama is better equipped than anyone else to bridge the divide between the U.S. and the Muslim world and end Islamic extremism and terorrism -- "because he's a black man." There is absolutely no empirical evidence to sustain that claim, the notion that a single individual, even one with a resume filled with appropriate experience, would be able to halt terrorism because of the color of his skin. It is patently absurd. But Kerry presented nothing to back up his astounding racial reasoning. And the Obama campaign was remarkably silent on Kerry's racialization of the foreign policy discussion.

Next, Governor Bill Richardson, who campaigned on his resume as a foreign policy practitioner, "agonized," he explained, before putting his faith in a "once in a lifetime leader" and endorsed Obama, repudiating his own rationale of experience as a prerequisite for being President. Rather than state why he believes Obama has superior national security credentials and positions, he opted to complain instead about James Carville comparing him to Judas Iscariot. Since Richardson made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign -- a direct consequence of President Bill Clinton's appointments -- and of the salience of foreign policy as an issue in the election, he owed an explanation of how Obama's foreign policy would make us stronger and more secure that Clinton's. But, preferring to defend himself against the charge of having betrayed the Clintons he neglected to discuss such policy.

Then, there was retired Air Force General, Merrill "Tony" McPeak, whose media appearance last week consisted of making the outrageous charge that Bill Clinton was using "McCarthy-like tactics" simply because he mentioned, in the event of a Hillary-McCain match-up, that Hillary and McCain are good patriots and that the campaign should be devoted to a substantive debate of the issues. Even the right wing National Review's Kathleen Parker, who was at the event, felt compelled to correct the record. "Bill Clinton was saying that Hillary and McCain are both good patriots who love their country, not that all those unmentioned are something else."

Bill Clinton, of course, was not using "McCarthy-like tactics," but the Obama campaign was eager to smear him. Which was guilty of "McCarthy-like tactics"? Attack the character of your adversaries; demean them; turn them into caricatures; while lying about someone, claim they are liars.

Finally, the Obama campaign pushed a compliant press corps, all too eager to do its bidding rather than maintain its standards of objectivity and skepticism, into hyping a mini-pseudo-scandal: whether Hillary "misspoke" about being under sniper fire when she paid a visit to Tuzla in Bosnia in 1996. In fact, the then-First Lady was told the plane was diving to land to avoid possible sniper fire. Whether there was or not is irrelevant. Anybody who has been involved in these situations, as I have, knows this. The threat was apparently real enough for U.S. military on the ground, the pilot and her security detail to engage in evasive procedures. That should have been the end of the matter. But the cable TV talking heads nattered the Obama campaign talking points endlessly.

Obama's week of rolling out national security surrogates and talking points was not a pretty sight and turned out to have almost nothing to do with bolstering his thin credentials. His distracting efforts were a clear attempt to deflect attention from them, in fact. In response to Hillary's detailed, substantive speech on Iraq, Obama replied with ad hominem insults. Instead of presenting his own plan, his campaign indulged in character assassination.

David Axelrod, the top Obama political strategist, for one, knows better. After all, he and his wife were direct beneficiaries of Hillary Clinton's personal kindness and public policy experience when, in the midst of the impeachment trial of her husband, she travelled to Chicago to support Susan Axelrod's efforts to raise money for her foundation, Citizens United for Research on Epilepsy (CURE), established by her after one of the Axelrod children was afflicted with the malady. As reported in the New York Times in April, 2007 (with thanks to eriposte of the Leftcoaster blog for his research):

"It was January 1999, President Clinton's impeachment trial was just beginning in the Senate and Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at the foundation's fund-raiser in Chicago. Despite all the fuss back in Washington, Clinton kept the appointment. She spent hours that day in the epilepsy ward at Rush Presbyterian hospital, visiting children hooked up to machines by electrodes so that doctors might diagram their seizure activity and decide which portion of the brain to remove. At the hospital, a local reporter pressed her about the trial in Washington, asked her about that woman. At the organization's reception at the Drake Hotel that evening, Clinton stood backstage looking over her remarks, figuring out where to insert anecdotes about the kids. "She couldn't stop talking about what she had seen," Susan Axelrod recalled. Later, at Hillary Clinton's behest, the National Institutes of Health convened a conference on finding a cure for epilepsy. Susan Axelrod told me it was "one of the most important things anyone has done for epilepsy." And this is how politics works: David Axelrod is now dedicated to derailing this woman's career."

Senator Obama and his campaign should get back to defending his policy positions and record rather than diminish a good person and an accomplished public servant. They know better.