Where's Hillary?

Where's Hillary?

By Jed Babbin - October 8, 2010

In war, to paraphrase Churchill, the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them. The most urgent duty of American diplomats is to engage with the nations directly involved, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with other allies such as the NATO nations from which we need more help. Noticeably absent from this drama is our diplomat in chief, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This should be the time of intense diplomatic maneuvering, back-channel communications and secret meetings in confining conference rooms aboard executive jets that arrive at night and depart before dawn. There should be smiling photo ops with NATO heads of state after arm-twisting meetings set up to get the military support that many of them refused in response to President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy. And Clinton should be visibly active, as were many secretaries of state in past wars.

Instead, we have Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars", in which Karzai and Zardari are ridiculed by many of Obama's top advisors.

Pakistan has been an inconstant ally in the war and the Zardari government is both unpopular and weak. Zardari is under political assault on two fronts: for his government's inability to relieve the suffering caused by the summer's massive floods and for allowing NATO cross-border attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan. According to news reports, the cross-border attacks - by helicopters and unmanned drones - have increased to as many as two dozen in the past five weeks. One such attack last Thursday killed three Pakistani soldiers.

The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that in response to the attack, the Pakistanis closed a key border crossing through which essential supplies flow to NATO forces in Afghanistan. (About eighty percent of the supplies going to our forces in Afghanistan flow through Pakistan.)

The situation in Afghanistan is no better, the Karzai government's ability to govern and legitimacy shrinking because of increasingly effective Taliban violence and propaganda as well as Karzai's corruption.

Obama's "diplomacy" is being carried out by other senior members of his administration, including National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Amb. Richard Holbrooke. The air quotes around "diplomacy" are necessary because many of the Obama team with direct responsibility for it have, in Woodward's book, vented views of Karzai and Zardari that are so damaging and offensive to the Afghan and Pakistani leaders that their cooperation will surely be reduced rather than enhanced.

Woodward's book leaves no doubt about the contempt Obama's team has for these key allies. Jones is quoted speaking about "the Karzai problem": "[Karzai] doesn't get it, or he doesn't want to get it," that Karzai is just "the mayor of Kabul." Gen. David Petraeus is quoted as saying that the Karzai government is a "criminal syndicate." US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry's disdain for Karzai has been public since January when secret cables he wrote to Secretary Clinton last November were published. Woodward quotes Eikenberry saying that we have no strong reliable partner in Afghanstan, that Karzai lacks connection with the Afghan people. Woodward also quotes intelligence sources saying that Karzai has been diagnosed a manic-depressive, on medication and suffering severe mood swings. In a section referring to Jones, Woodward quotes intelligence reports saying that Karzai is erratic, delusional, "off his meds" or "high on weed."

Zardari fares little better. US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson is quoted saying, "I worry that all of this is going to blow up. Zardari doesn't know anything about governing. He will never get out from being Mr. Benazir Bhutto..." Zardari, and his ambassador to the US are painted repeatedly as untrustworthy.

There is merit to many of the accusations against both men, but making them publicly is certain to reduce their level of trust in Obama and the people he sends to meet with them.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway has said that the president's July 2011 schedule to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan gives the enemy sustenance. How much will the enemy gain from the assaults on Karzai and Zardari?

So where's Hillary? If there were a strong Secretary of State - such as Henry Kissinger or George Schultz - would any of the Obama team be spouting off like this?

There's no Kissingerian shuttle carrying her from Washington to Pakistan and back to reopen the closed border crossing. Clinton isn't disappearing for days or weeks, absent at secret meetings. She's warming the diplomatic bench, holding press conferences with Treasury Secretary Geithner proclaiming risible new sanctions on Iran.

Clinton has never been Obama's principal diplomat. While George Bush chose to deal directly with Karzai, Obama chose not to. Instead of using Clinton, Obama uses Eikenberry, Jones and Panetta to deal with the Afghan leader.

And in Woodward's book, we see the moment at which that the gap between Clinton and Obama may have become unbridgeable. It should scotch all the talk of an "Obama-Clinton" ticket in 2012.

In an October 9 meeting on the Afghan strategy, Clinton said to Obama, "Mr. President, the dilemma you face..." Her use of "you" instead of "we" - according to Woodward - "floored" Richard Holbrooke who told Woodward it was a "Freudian giveaway." Woodward writes that to Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, it was Clinton distancing herself from Obama.

Pakistan's foreign policy is India-centric, its enmity toward India going back to the partitioning of the two nations and the Kashmir region between them, when the British departed after World War 2. Pakistan's tolerance of terrorism is too great for us to tolerate. The leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror group responsible for the Mumbai massacre in 2008, is in Pakistani custody but is reportedly not being interrogated effectively. Obama should be making every effort to strengthen our relations with India as a pressure on Zardari. Clinton should be in India attempting that. But she isn't.

Clinton is stuck. She has been sidelined in the most difficult diplomatic struggle since Roosevelt and Eisenhower managed the coalition of allies in World War 2. But if she had confidence in her ability - and were convinced that history (not necessarily the voters in 2012) would validate her-- she would be vastly stronger and either push Obama in the right direction or resign.

But Clinton, as always, is corralled by her own ambitions, apparently thinking of her own interests and failing to realize that the nation's interests are, in the long run, the same as hers. A bench-warmer she is, and a bench-warmer she will remain.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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