She is tactful about it, but in the exchange below between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and The News Hour correspondent Margaret Warner, Clinton suggests that McChrystal is only one of several voices on Afghanistan strategy but that his views are not definitive, and that there are many other decision points. She is respectful that this is his view — but she is not on board with what the commanding general in the field suggests as of yet.
She makes clear that the President will not be rushed into a decision by the McChrystal report and also emphasizes that the outcome of the Afghan election is not yet decided (wow. . .really?)
Here is the fascinating exchange between Margaret Warner and Hillary Clinton that will appear on The News Hour tonight (to watch video, click here):
MARGARET WARNER: Madam Secretary, thanks for doing this.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Well thank you very much for talking with me today, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you are a key advisor to President Obama as Secretary of State, as he’s reviewing this whole Afghan strategy. What is your reaction to General McChrystal’s assessment?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well first let me put it into context. I mean one of the points that the President has made continuously since taking office is that we’re going to be assessing, both our strategy and its implementation constantly. We’re not going to make a decision and then just let it go on autopilot. We think that it’s much better to be very open and robust in our deliberations. So what General McChrystal has done is to take a look from his perspective. He’s a new commander and he was asked to please give his best judgment. His memo is what’s called a classified pre-decisional assessment but it goes into the process. We have a really vigorous process through the NSC and the White House where we make our contributions and then of course decisions go to the president. I think the President said very well yesterday on his marathon talk show appearances that you know we need to have a clear view of the strategy and its implementation before we get to resources, and that’s the process we’re engaged in right now.
MARGARET WARNER: General McChrystal was very blunt saying if you want to do counter-insurgency, he needs more resources or the whole war will, quote, “likely result in failure.” Now is there anyone better positioned to give at least that kind of assessment than the commander you sent out there, or the president sent out there to do just that?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, but, without referencing General McChrystal’s report because it is classified, let me just say that we know, including our military colleagues that good governance is key to whether or not what we do has positive results. We know that getting it right in Pakistan and along the border is critical. So there’s not just one decision point — number of troops. It is part of a broader understanding of what are our true goals, how best can we move toward achieving them? We have a clear and critical objective of trying to disrupt and dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and their extremist allies and prevent a return to safe haven, and every piece of this has to fit together. We don’t even know yet who will be the president of Afghanistan so it’s, it’s not in any way to say that what General McChrystal, based on his expertise is presenting or asking for is not important. It’s critically important but it’s a part of the overall process and there are many other considerations that we have to take into account.
MARGARET WARNER: In it he goes to the point you raise about governance. And he says that the Karzai government, he said given the widespread corruption and I’m just going to quote, he said, “gives Afghans little reason to support their government.” Do you see it that way? I mean you have people on the ground there, that there’s something pretty fundamentally flawed about this national government and the way it’s regarded by its own people at a time in which part of the strategy was to stand up a stable and secure national government.
HILLARY CLINTON: Well I see it certainly as a problem. You know corruption, I have labeled a national security threat. But I think we have to take a step back which is why this analysis is so important, and we’re not going to jump to a snap judgment. We’re going to take this very deliberately.
First of all holding any election in a war time setting is very difficult to do. The fact that this election went forward despite the flaws and the alleged irregularities is not surprising. It’s a question of whether at the end of the process, and remember there is both an Afghan independent election commission and an international election commission, if at the end of the process after sorting through everything that they have to look at, they conclude that there was a victor in this first round, or they conclude that you have to go to a second round, I think that will give a certain reassurance to the people of Afghanistan. The real question, however, is not so much who gets elected, but what do they do once they are elected? How do they built the confidence of their own people that they’re a government that cares about the Afghan people, that they are delivering services, that they are combating corruption, improving governance, all of that, and that’s what we have to work on.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that President Karzai, I mean he’s been in that job for five years, the U.S. has been saying all those things for five years, maybe not as emphatically as you all have, do you have any confidence that he has the political will, the capability, the background to do any of that?
HILLARY CLINTON: I don’t think he was really tested in the prior administration. I think that there was such an intense immediate effort that was totally understandable, to go after the Taliban, to try to insofar as possible chase down al-Qaida, that governance was important but it wasn’t understood to be central to our military strategic goals. So what I believe is that there’s a lot of good that has come for the Afghan people over the last years. There hasn’t been a history of you know really strong functioning central governments, but more people are in school, particularly more girls than women. There are advances being made that we have now worked on over the last eight months to deal with the poppy trade, to focus on agriculture so that we actually bring assets to the people where they live and what their livelihood is, so I think there are some positive changes going on. Is it enough? Is it moving at a pace that I prefer? No, but I want to look at this very objectively. I can see the problems and I can see, you know, the positives and then we want to move more to the positive side of the ledger.
MARGARET WARNER: So how fundamental is this review that President Obama and you all are doing? How long is it going to take?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well it is fundamental because it is part of the way we’re approaching these issues. I mean we constantly are saying what’s working, what’s not working, so it is both fundamental and it is thorough and thoughtful. We’re not going to make any decisions of any significance until we know the outcome of this election. I mean because we have to know who our counterparts are, and we have to make it clear that in return for X, we expect Y.
MARGARET WARNER: So is a real change in strategy, at least an alternative, which is not trying to build up or, or create capacity in a strong central government, but going to a different model. Doing a more classic counter-terrorism campaign, attacking al-Qaida leaders and having fewer combat forces on the ground? Are you actually reassessing whether counterinsurgency is the way to go here?
HILLARY CLINTON: You know I think it’s fair to say, Margaret, that we have an open mind to any argument that is made. Now I’m sure each of us is entering into this process with our own points of view and our own base of understanding what will or will not work. And what General McChrystal has done is to provide his assessment. We will get assessments from others as well. And then we will hash it out in the National Security Council team and then we will present our best recommendations to the president. But at the end of the day it’s the president’s decision and I think what we heard the president saying yesterday is look, you’re going to have to convince me that whatever decision, is it classic counter-insurgency with additional troops? Is it counter-insurgency at the same troop level? Is it a different mix of troops? Is it a counter terrorism strategy?
MARGARET WARNER: Fewer troops?
HILLARY CLINTON: Who knows? I mean what we’re looking at though are the goals that we have. Our goal is to protect the United States of America, our allies, our friends around the world from what is the epicenter of terrorism, namely the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. I mean just today we have this announcement in New York about a very important terrorism investigation involving people from Afghanistan. Some people say, “well al-Qaida’s no longer in Afghanistan.” If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can’t tell you how fast al-Qaida would be back in Afghanistan. So we have to be really clear-eyed about this, and what I’m very grateful for is that we’re not coming in with any ideological, you know, presuppositions. We’re not coming in wedded to the past. What we try to do in this administration is to sort out all of the different factors and come to the resolution based on the best information we have, and then as soon as we do that we keep going at it. We don’t say, “OK, fine, now we’re set for the next five years.” That’s not the way the president works, that’s not the way that any of us work.
MARGARET WARNER: Getting back to General McChrystal’s memo though, he conveys a great sense of urgency. I mean there’s one line in there in which he says, “failure to gain the initiative,” and he’s talking about in the near term, while we wait for say the Afghan security forces to really get able to handle this. He said, “risks and outcome where defeating the insurgency’s no longer possible.” So he is strongly suggesting that there aren’t months and months to come to a decision here.
HILLARY CLINTON: Well and I respect that because clearly he is the commander on the ground, but I can only tell you there are other assessments from, you know, very expert military analysts who have worked in counter insurgencies that are the exact opposite. So what our goal is, is to take all of this incoming data and sort it out. And I don’t think anybody is going to push to a conclusion for the sake of a conclusion. I think you’ve seen that this president acts and thinks very deliberatively which I believe is a preferable way to proceed when you’re talking about the lives of young American men and women, the lives of the young soldiers of our allies who are part of the international security force, when you’re talking about lives of Afghans. You want to be sure that the approach that we are pursuing maximizes success. There is no guarantee. There is absolutely no guarantee, but what we do know is that this remains vital to America’s national security interests, so how do we best define our approach to protecting the interests and the values that are at stake?
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, turning to U.N. GA week, U.N. General Assembly week here, Iran’s not formally on the agenda, but it’s clearly an important subtext. What would you like to get out of this week that would strengthen the hand of the U.S. and its partners in restraining Iran’s nuclear program?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, Iran may not be formally on the agenda but it’s on everyone’s mind and the upcoming meeting of the permanent members of the security council, plus Germany on October 1st, is a very important milestone. The United States had not formerly participated in these meetings before. We will be at the table. We’ve made it very clear to Iran that they may have issues they wish to discuss with this group, but this group has one issue to discuss with them and that is, you know, their nuclear program. As I’ve said many times, we’re going to give the Iranians a choice. They have a choice that they are facing now. They have flaunted the international community. They have refused to allow the kind of inspections and follow-up that they are obligated to do so, and we want to make it very clear what their options are going forward.
MARGARET WARNER: The supreme leader, Khamenei, this weekend decried, I think was the verb used, the reshaping of the missile defense system for Europe that the Obama administration did last week. Was that intended as a signal to Iran?
HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, and his decrying it is probably the strongest endorsement that we have of the change in policy that has been adopted in this administration.
MARGARET WARNER: What kind of signal?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well we have said from the very beginning that missile defense in Europe was about Iran. And it was about their missile capacity. Based on our analysis we determined that they were much further along in short term and medium ballistic missiles than in the intercontinental ballistic missiles. So we adapted this, we adopted this new approach and if you look at the map, we will protect all of Europe plus much of the caucuses, our troops, NATO troops, and we’ve been sending a message. I have repeatedly made clear to the Iranians that if part of their calculation in pursuing nuclear weapons that are deliverable on missiles, is that they will be able to better dominate their region and beyond, they are making an inaccurate calculation.
MARGARET WARNER: And will you also be protecting Israel and the Gulf states?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well we are in discussions with other friends and allies in the region.
MARGARET WARNER: Madam Secretary, thank you for being with us.
HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you, very much, Margaret.
I will be discussing America’s Afghanistan problems with Keith Olbermann on Countdown tonight from the MSNBC Studio at 30 Rock.
— Steve Clemons