Exclusive: President Obama calls on blacks to vote for Hillary Clinton to protect the first black president’s legacy, but there are questions about Clinton’s judgment and Obama’s legacy that deserve answers, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
By Ray McGovern
Speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner on Saturday, President Barack Obama warned, in what has become for him a typically regal manner: “I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this [African-American] community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.”
After a round of applause, Obama added: “You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote.”
While urging people to vote is fine, there’s something troubling about how the President phrased it: that a person’s decision to vote for Hillary Clinton should be determined by the need to protect his legacy. And, in the context of speaking to African-Americans, Obama was telling them that his blackness and theirs made a vote for Clinton necessary.
A similar call to identity politics troubled me, too, when Hillary Clinton sought to play the gender card. I would have been equally offended if when I became old enough to vote, my Irish-American relatives told me to vote for an Irish Catholic named John F. Kennedy because of our shared ancestry or religion. I would have found it condescending – infantilizing even – if anyone warned me that s/he would take it as a personal insult, were I not to vote for Kennedy.
I voted for Kennedy based on what I saw as his merits as a leader (and consider it the major tragedy of my lifetime that he may well have been killed for those merits).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But most of us know that basic article of fairness – or should know that. Neither race nor gender should be the touchstone in voting this year or any year. Nor should white males vote for Donald Trump because he’s one of them.
Yet, on the race side, Obama came perilously close to the gender comment made in February by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Challenging young women who were showing a preference for Bernie Sanders, Albright told them: “You have to help. Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Au contraire: I might argue that if there is a Hell, there’s a special place for a U.S. diplomat – in the person of Albright – who argued that the sanctions against Iraq, which the United Nations calculated had claimed the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children under five, were “worth it.”
Clinton – with her hawkish behavior on Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and her similar disregard for those human costs (even while professing to care so much for the innocent civilians) – appears to share Albright’s view about using geopolitical power even when it results in the deaths of children. Even the usually timid Catholic bishops branded Albright’s position “unconscionable.”
Content of Obama’s Character
As for the President and his imperious behavior, my friends and I have been debating whether Obama was always a fraud or whether he succumbed to Lord Acton’s adage: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Or was he a talented outsider who – because of his race and humble background – desperately wanted to be accepted by the Establishment and feared that even as President he would be judged harshly by important people with blue-ribbon credentials and blue-blood pedigrees? Earlier in his presidency, I even speculated that Obama was physically scared of crossing the Establishment too directly, for fear of ending up like Kennedy and King.
One could argue that aspects of Obama’s behavior as President fit all these possibilities. He does not appear to have sincerely believed many of his early pronouncements, such as the value of transparency in government and the importance of whistleblowers. He quickly morphed into one of the most secretive U.S. presidents and went after whistleblowers with a vengeance.
His war on whistleblowers also could be interpreted as a case of presidential powers going to his head. Or was he trying to prove to the Establishment that he, the son of a Kenyan student and a white mother in Hawaii, could protect the secrets even more aggressively than a white scion of the Establishment, like George W. Bush.
At times, Obama has complained about feeling trapped by the expectations of the Washington Establishment, saying in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic that he once challenged the Washington “playbook” that favored responding to international crises with military force by balking at demands that he bomb the Syrian military in 2013.
That the President would still be boasting about that one decision as his “liberation day” – almost three years later – says a lot about his failure to continue standing up to the pressures brought to bear by Washington’s Establishment. Even on the few occasions when he did show some nerve, such as by pressing for the Iran nuclear deal in 2014, he followed up by making major concessions to Israel and Saudi Arabia, two Mideast governments with lots of clout in Washington.
And maybe some physical fear went with his fear of personal rejection. After all, as a black man who reached extraordinary political heights, he was aware of the violence that had cut down many other blacks who dared make far more modest intrusions into the white power structure.
So, what was driving him when he expanded the war in Afghanistan (in 2009) at the bidding of his hawkish “subordinates” who were much more comfortable inside Official Washington’s hierarchy, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
The Libyan Disaster
Obama deferred to the judgment of others again in 2011 when Hillary Clinton and some fellow hawks wanted another “regime change,” this time in Libya. Obama let Clinton prevail over his more sensible advisers and undertook an invasion (under the cover of a “humanitarian” mission) that decimated Libya’s army; allowed extremists to capture, torture and murder Gaddafi; and left the country in shambles, giving the Islamic State a foothold in north Africa.
Ironically, after exaggerating and lying about the “humanitarian” crisis facing Libya in 2011, the Obama administration let the country slide into a real humanitarian catastrophe with the Islamic State chopping off the heads of Coptic Christians and desperate people taking to the Mediterranean in fragile boats that have sent an untold number to their deaths.
According to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule, if you break it, you own it. So that would mean that since Secretary Clinton was significantly responsible for breaking Libya, she should now own the catastrophe. But she not only refuses to own it, she refuses to own up to it.
Last April, Obama conceded to Fox anchor Chris Wallace that his worst mistake was “probably failing to plan for the day after … in intervening in Libya.” But the real “mistake” was invading Libya under false pretenses, as a new British parliamentary study has confirmed. It was a deception that paralleled Bush’s lies about Iraq.
Further on the side of the scales judging Obama as fearful of the Establishment is his bowing to CIA covert action operatives. Obama seems to have done all he could not to get crosswise with the folks who – for generations – have been the world’s leading king-makers and king-breakers.
Thanks to Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian, we now know how Obama pulled out all stops to thwart publication of the findings of an exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, based on original CIA banality-of-evil cables, describing the most sordid and grotesque kinds of torture by the CIA under President George W. Bush.
Minimizing those crimes for which no one has been held accountable, Obama chose to “look forward, not backward” and admitted, dismissively, “We tortured some folks.” This from a politician who led us to believe he was really, really against torture.
But with very meager and misleading media coverage as to whether torture “works” – and with no one prosecuted for the crimes – popular reaction has been confused, with many Americans cheering Donald Trump’s promises to resume waterboarding and even more extreme types of torture.
It does not speak well for the “content off his character” that Obama decided to kowtow to those responsible for torture and head off their richly deserved disgrace. Thankfully, Obama met his match in Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who published a redacted-but-nonetheless-stomach-turning executive summary of the Senate report in December 2014, just before the Senate changed hands to the Republicans.
Hamlet on Syria
Even as his presidency nears an end, Obama seems to remain frozen by the fear of crossing the powers-that-be, especially if he might get portrayed as “soft” on one of America’s “enemies,” such as Syria or Russia.
Obama has allowed bureaucratic warfare to break out between Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter over what to do in Syria. Kerry has pressed, successfully, for Russia’s help in putting an end to the carnage; but Carter and the military would rather not cooperate with Russia – no matter what the White House might wish.
So as Obama waffles – and the U.S.-led air war over Syria massacred scores of Syrian soldiers on Saturday – the hopes for a limited cease-fire have collapsed. Even if he summoned the courage to tell his inept national security adviser, Susan Rice, to tell Secretary Carter and the Pentagon to get in line, it probably wouldn’t help at this point.
One of Obama’s greatest fears seems to be that Israeli leaders will denounce him and whip up another political-media storm against him. Obama has been stung by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s animosity before, such as when Netanyahu embraced Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the run-up to Election 2012.
After Obama prevailed for reelection anyway, you might have thought the President – arguably at the height of his political power – would have given Netanyahu the cold shoulder. Instead, Obama rushed off for a three-day visit to Israel, behaving as some kind of supplicant begging forgiveness rather than the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.
Having taken a measure of Obama, Netanyahu brazenly opposed the President’s nuclear negotiation with Iran, even appearing before a joint session of Congress to call on America’s elected representatives to side with him against the U.S. president.
Obama responded by giving Israel a $38 billion arms package, the largest ever. No matter the affront, Obama has never stopped looking over his shoulder at Israel and its powerful U.S. lobby. Indeed, one could argue that Obama’s feckless policy toward Syria has served Netanyahu’s interests very well by destroying and destabilizing another Arab nation on Israel’s borders.
Though Obama did resist pressure from Clinton and other hawks to engage in a more aggressive military operation against Syria, he secretly agreed to arm and train anti-government rebels who then joined with Al Qaeda’s affiliate. However, when Al Qaeda’s spinoff terror group, the Islamic State, began chopping off the heads of Western hostages in 2014, Obama authorized aerial bombing and Special Forces operations inside Syria against the Islamic State.
The Israeli Motive
Though Israeli leaders and their friends in Washington sought instead the outright overthrow of Syria’s government, Obama’s waffling has achieved Israel’s primary goal of weakening a sometimes hostile neighbor and ally of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. That, in turn, has bought Netanyahu more time to expand Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands.
In candid moments, some senior Israeli officials have admitted that their preferred outcome in Syria is “no outcome,” as reported three years ago by the New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Jodi Rudoren.
“More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome. … This is a playoff situation [between Sunni and Shia] in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”
Another senior Israeli, then-Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, offered a slightly different preference, that the Assad government, with its alliance with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, would be overthrown even if that meant that Al Qaeda would prevail in Syria.
“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”
But such frank assessments by Israel received little attention in the U.S. news media and Israel’s stake in the Syrian chaos was quickly forgotten.
Today, some partisan Democrats argue that a clear-sighted understanding of the Syrian and Libyan messes – along with discussion of the Iraq disaster – could undercut Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and that such truth-telling could contribute to the election of Donald Trump.
But what if Clinton wins without having been pressed to speak honestly about her role in these catastrophes and to say whether she has learned any lessons? As president, is she likely to compound or repeat these errors?
During the campaign, Clinton has continued to defend her advocacy for the invasion of Libya, using what the British investigation has concluded was the exaggeration of Gaddafi’s threat to civilians. Clinton still insists that Gaddafi was “genocidal” when that clearly was not the case. She also has continued to call for a more aggressive U.S. military intervention in Syria, albeit coded in words like “safe zones.” And she has vowed to take the U.S.-Israeli relationship to the “next level.”
Indeed, there is no sign that Clinton has changed her approach toward the Middle East in any significant way from 2002 when she voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. She now calls that decision a “mistake” but there are serious questions about whether that was a political “death-bed conversion” because she had little choice but to disavow the vote when running for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
As Secretary of State during Obama’s first term, Clinton slid back into the ranks of Democratic hawks, joining with neoconservatives and other hardliners in advocating a “surge” in Afghanistan, leading the charge for another “regime change” in Libya, pressing Obama to mount one more “regime change” intervention in Syria and taking an aggressive stance vis a vis Russia.
So, is it wise to ignore Clinton’s judgments on questions of war and peace, especially since as President, there will be no one to slow her down or prevent her from starting another war? Should Americans stay silent because of the risk posed by the buffoonish Donald Trump? Is the danger of an “insult” to Obama’s legacy sufficient to justify silence about issues of life and death for so many people around the world?
I believe that nothing but the truth will set us free. And that means that Americans must evaluate the “content of the character” of not only Obama but his designated successor, Hillary Clinton.
As Dr. King recognized, there is a necessity in clearing the air when it surrounds a festering sore. Or as he wrote in his Letter From the Birmingham City Jail:
“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years, works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was born in the Bronx, when membership in the Democratic Party was almost conveyed at Baptism, but he has since annulled his party membership.