walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: October 16, 2012
Hillary Jumps Under the Bus But Can’t Save the Driver From Himself

Some disappointed Romney partisans are angry that Hillary seems to be trying to save Obama’s bacon. That’s a simplistic misreading of a complicated story. The head of a cabinet department should take responsibility when something under their field of operations goes wrong. Remember Rumsfeld and Abu Ghraib? He didn’t give the orders, but something terrible went wrong while he was in the head office, and ultimately he needed to own it.

Bush’s mistake at the time was not to have accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation.   It would have been good for the country and good for our foreign policy to provide unambiguous proof that the United States took that problem seriously. Bush should have also ended some careers after the WMD fiasco.

The State Department clearly made some bad decisions about security in Libya, and whatever the complicated reasons why that happened might be, Hillary Clinton as a serious and responsible official did the right thing by stepping up to the plate.

But there is a larger failure in Libya. Just as George W. Bush couldn’t dodge responsibility for the decision to go to war in Iraq on the basis of nukes that never showed up, President Obama owns the Libya mess in which the attack in Bengazi was just an incident—as Abu Ghraib was an incident in Bush’s war. Libya, thankfully, is nowhere near as big of a mess as Iraq, but even as President Obama mulls the possibility of retaliatory strikes, it’s not clear that we won’t get sucked further in. And if anything, this president should have learned from Bush’s experience in Iraq: overthrowing governments in the Middle East when you don’t know what comes next is a dangerous hobby.

Clinton can’t deflect final responsibility for that decision from President Obama, and she can’t cover over the mess that has the United States now puzzling over how to fight Al Qaeda and its allies in Mali as well as in Libya — or how to respond to the increase in terrorist strength in Niger and Nigeria to boot. This is a real mess and a serious one, and it flows from a set of poor decisions that the President and no other person made.

Nor of course can she take responsibility for the apparent failure of the President’s chosen strategy in Afghanistan.

If Bush were still in the White House, the press would in full firestorm/feeding frenzy mode on what would no doubt be called the Middle East Meltdown. Endless expositions on the pattern of presidential failure would be the main preoccupation of the chattering class. From Mali to Afpak via Syria and Bahrain (if Bush were president the hypocrisy of US policy in Bahrain would be driving some of our more sensitive moral consciences into glorious arpeggios of rage and invective) the story of administration miscalculations and strategic mistakes would be on the front page of our papers.

We would probably also be seeing at this point a lot more attention to stories contrasting the Secretary of State’s forthright acceptance of responsibility for specific problems with the President’s steadfast refusal to discuss his record in the Middle East—and his dodging of press conferences where these policy problems could be vetted would now be a huge issue—if Obama were President Bush.

But he isn’t, and connecting those dots is something that, given the MSM’s evident sympathy for this administration, American journalism is doing its best to avoid. That’s likely to change after the election no matter who wins. In an Obama second term, the press is more likely to do unto him as it did unto LBJ after 1968, and it will of course be open season on a Romney administration from Day One.

There are no easy answers for many of the problems in the Middle East and there is no set of beautiful, fail-safe polices the United States can follow that will make everything fine there. This is reality, and criticism of all presidents needs to be tempered by a sober awareness of those facts. Just because we are having problems doesn’t mean the president is an incompetent, a liar or a traitor. And even when a president has clearly taken some wrong turns in that dangerous and complicated labyrinth, those of us outside the tornado of day to day policymaking should remember that error is inevitable in human affairs.

George Washington thoroughly screwed up the American Revolution more than once. Thomas Jefferson’s embargo policy was one of the stupidest mistakes an American president has ever made. Abraham Lincoln’s military incompetence and political misjudgements took a terrible toll during the Civil War. FDR made huge mistakes in World War Two. Harry Truman’s prosecution of the Cold War was full of mistakes. President Eisenhower badly bungled the Suez/Hungarian crises. JFK’s early missteps helped make the Cuba Missile Crisis inevitable. Ronald Reagan’s foolishness in sending US Marines to Beirut led to a bloody disaster.

These are all presidents we remember as successful. I don’t think President Bush or President Obama will stand in their company, but in judging their records and thinking about contemporary politics we need to remember that no president has ever gotten everything right, and unless Jesus Christ should unexpectedly throw his hat in the ring, no president ever will.

That said, presidents who take responsibility for their mistakes and as far as possible level with the people about what is going on tend to look better and achieve more than those who hide and shift and dodge. This White House still has a lot to learn.

Image courtesy of Jose Gil /

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