01/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Folly of de-Clintonification

In the Spring of 2003, shortly after being appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer issued an order that would have crippling effects on the Iraqi Ministries and public service. Bremer ordered the De-Baathification of Iraqi Society. In essence his order insured that no Iraqi who had been in the upper echelon of the Baath Party would be allowed to work in government ministries and prohibited anyone who had been a 'full member' of the Baath Party from serving in an upper level position in the public sector. The consequence of Bremer's decision was disastrous for Iraqi ministries and publicly run businesses in the critical post-Saddam transition period. The edict deprived the public sector of a substantial portion of Iraq's most capable civil servants, the people who knew how to drive the proverbial bus. In addition to the damage the decision did to the public sector, it served to further politically divide post-Saddam Iraq by alienating a large-politically relevant segment of the population. Those who pushed the policy seemed to confuse membership in the Baath Party for unquestioning support for Saddam Husain.

As Barack Obama goes about the business of picking his staff and forming a cabinet, cries have gone up from both sides of the political spectrum, from Sean Hannity to the "far left", that Obama is committing some kind of sin by appointing a number of people who worked in the Clinton Administration. As a recent article on Politico said, "While the Clinton years were a time of expansive economic growth, the ties of Obama's economic team to the last Democratic administration could conflict with the campaign's message of bringing change to Washington." There is nothing wrong with criticism of appointments based on their record, or past mistakes, but lambasting them based on their affiliation to the Clintons is misguided. Is the point that because Obama used the word "change" a lot during his campaign, he should deprive his administration of a pool of capable experienced individuals? If Obama were to pass over everyone who had served in the Clinton Administration, he would be depriving himself of the vast majority of Democrats who have any tangible experience working in the executive branch.

Bremer's decision to purge members of the Baath party from political involvement instantly created a marginalized, angry opposition. Obama is taking the opposite track. He is handpicking the brightest, most capable people from the Clinton Administration, a move which will not only serve to ensure the unity of the party, but will increase the likelihood that his administration will be effective from day one. Many administrations limp out of the gate. Appointing people who have a firsthand knowledge of how the machinery works is a benefit, not a detriment. It will insure that the "learning curve" for the new administration doesn't prevent it from immediate success.

The tacit implication of Bremer's plan was that involvement in the Baath Party meant that an individual was an ardent supporter of Saddam Husain, and therefore directly complicit in his horrific policies. This assumption ignored the reality of Iraqi political society. If one wanted to advance in the public sector, one joined the party. Now, by no means am I comparing the Clinton Administration to the regime of Saddam Husain. In the grand scheme of things, I think Clinton was an effective president.

There does however seem to be a misconception about what it means to be a "Clinton Person". I heard similar arguments from Sean Hannity and a progressive friend of mine. Something to the effect of, being involved in the Clinton White House makes one a "Clinton Person" and therefore unfit for appointment in the Obama Administration. Nonsense. Being in the Clinton administration makes someone a capable, ambitious person. A (likely) Democrat who was of an appropriate age to be a civil servant during the Clinton Administration. Belonging to the Baath Party didn't inherently define someone as a stooge of Saddam Husain and Iraq suffered as a result of the CPA's ban on their participation in future administrations. Likewise, the label of "Clintonite" is as meaningless and detrimental as the charge of "Baathist" was in Iraq five and a half years ago. Having worked for the Clinton administration doesn't make someone a disciple of the Clintons. It's ridiculous to lambast Obama for taking advantage of the talent and capabilities found in former employees of the Clinton Administration.