Open Note to the Presidential Candidates on What Leadership Might Look Like


If this is a time of policy and not politics — prove it. Work together.
Pakistan is in confusion about its future — and whether we want to admit it or not — America has real stakes in the course Pakistan takes and very, very few options in affecting that course.
So far, most of the candidates have been beating each other up over what they would do if in the White House and confronted with something as shocking and potentially pivotal as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
There is no silver bullet fix to the Pakistan problem — which is tied to Iraq, to 9/11, to the unresolved, hemorrhaging ulcer of Israel/Palestine relations, to a growing Saudi-Iran Cold War in the Middle East, to its own pretensions as a great state and its inability to convince the totality of Pakistani citizens that modernity will move them forward in ways they want.
I’m of the opinion that this is a time when good policy work is needed, and strategy — not politics. But we are now in a time of politics and not policy — as a friend told me recently.
General Wesley Clark has echoed my statement that Bhutto’s death is not a time for politics — but it’s clear that all parties in all the campaigns are engaged in one-upmanship. Clark wants all to take the high road, but that in and of itself is political.
David Axelrod blew it in my view yesterday with his assertion that Clinton bore responsibility for Bhutto’s assassination. We all are complicit then. The Dems have been complicit in continuing to empower the President to do what he will in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The real culprit in the war and the mess in the Middle East and South Asia is George W. Bush’s national security team.
But Clark in a statement below calls for leadership, but what would leadership look like?
General Wesley Clark stated today:

This is a time for leadership, not politics. Senator Obama’s campaign seems to believe that Senator Clinton’s actions led to the tragic events in Pakistan. This is an incredible and insulting charge. It politicizes a tragic event of enormous strategic consequence to the United States and the world, and it has no place in this campaign.

There is no doubt that Clark’s statement is itself politically motivated — but what if decent leaders who would put aside politics hijacked this statement and made something of it?
I think it would be interesting for someone like Joe Biden and Chris Dodd — who really do know this situation in Pakistan well — called on Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and whomever would join from the Republican side to discuss collectively a sensible strategy for the US to take given the potential consequences of Bhutto’s murder.
They all want to try and differentiate themselves from each other in this political marketplace — but coalescing even minimally in a serious discussion and “encounter” with an informed, diverse set of regional and national security experts would show that these candidates could put the nation’s interest before their own ambitions.
Bhutto’s assassination may trigger more ahead. Clark is right that this is not something to drive a political vehicle with — but saying that is not enough.
Who is going to call for a credible discussion on the options America needs to consider in the region.
I think, if asked, most of the candidates would have to accept — and there is an easily assembled list of smart analysts and Pakistan watchers who could be publicly called on to share their expertise.
That would be leadership.

— Steve Clemons


14 comments on “Open Note to the Presidential Candidates on What Leadership Might Look Like

  1. Truth789 says:

    General Wesley Clark was right as usual. Obama tried to politicize it by saying Hillary’s vote in the senate caused Bhutto’s death which is a crock of bs.
    Of course people try to over analyze everything Clinton does but I guess that is politics. What is reality though is the fact that Hillary will be our next President and I am proud to say that General Wesley Clark will be our next Vice President (or Secretary of State). Thanks goodness Obama and the Republican Loons will be just a bad memory.


  2. Nathan says:

    Did you bother reading Obama’s “The War We Need to Win?” He’s even worse than Clinton. To prove his “toughness” after making those remarks about meeting dictators back in August, he said he would attack Pakistan. And now he’s flaunting his foreign policy “judgment!” Mind you, he doesn’t mention that he, too, continues to fund the unending occupation of Iraq (Hell, his voting record is the SAME as Clinton’s).
    I hope Edwards wins this. We can’t afford an Obama or another Clinton presidency. Enough with “Hope!” and “Back to the future” politics.


  3. rich says:

    Thanks for the response—I didn’t see it when I last posted above.
    I’d made better/key points @ 2:16 right after your response, and @ 5:28 in the previous thread (more worked up; pls overlook!).
    It’s the broad impact of allowing bin Ladens’ trail to grow cold and invading Iraq, on Pakistan, that Axelrod refers to. I didn’t see any statement that Hillary’s specific vote caused Bhutto’s assassination.
    Because the DLC, Dems, and Repubs willingly sidelined their role, we’re saddled with the trifecta of failed states I cited above. One side effect of our broad policy is Benazir Bhutto’s killing.
    Not directly caused by anyone’s votes. Nonetheless a result of a disintegrating, radicalized Pakistani social and political order.
    That was eminently predictable. And Axelrod speaks–explicitly–about that.
    Had Jimmy Carter let Osama bin Laden free for 8 years, his excoriation would’ve been unimaginable. Yet George Bush has done exactly that–and Establishment Washington responded by planting and watering his very own “Rose Garden.”
    We have yet to see anyone go after Bush politically for not bringing in bin Laden. Nor have we seen any drumbeat for that same purpose. In 1979 it was Day 276 of the Hostage ‘Crisis’–
    –HAD Congress, the DLC, Hillary Clinton, or the media pushed Bush on that issue, Benazir Bhutto might be alive today.
    THAT’s the key. Musharraf wouldn’t have been on the hot seat internally.
    Instead, America would’ve taken the brunt of militant anger in Pakistan. Musharraf could shake his fist at us, and coopted some Paki figures while going after others. But Bhutto wouldn’t have drawn that anger or attention.
    Btw, Bhutto identifies Musharraf & 2 figures in his govt as her future killers.
    (Can’t draw conclusions, but note: Bhutto’s security was removed prior to the attack, despite her repeated pleas. On Sept 11, US warplanes from the Eastern Seaboard were on exercise in the Arctic Circle. Opportunists come in all shapes & sizes. )


  4. rich says:

    Look, anyone with even passing familiarty knows Pakistan was unstable and radicalized long before 2001.
    Letting bin Laden skate into Pakistan, and then invading Iraq, didn’t just bring a resurgent Taliban and worldwide resentment.
    It also had a broad and catalytic impact on Pakistan’s political strife and instability. There was every likelihood Pakistan would come apart at the seams.
    Musharraf could hardly be expected to manage his working relationship with the CIA–and manage his relationship with al Qaeda & native radical Muslims.
    That crescendo of extremism and terrorism set the stage for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
    Hillary didn’t pull the trigger. And Axelrod never said she did. Hillary, Official Washington and the DLC (incl. Lieberman) eagerly, oh so eagerly, went along with this absurdly costly & counterproductive foreign ‘policy’. It was their job to intervene and force our efforts back to Priority One.
    Instead, they helped saddle us with a new trifecta: a resurgent Taliban, a quagmire in Iraq, and a shattered, failing Pakistan. Axelrod is correct: the impacts of our foreign policy errors set the stage for Bhutto’s assassination.


  5. Steve Clemons says:

    Rich — I understand your perspective, and I think that David Axelrad’s intention in his comment may be read in different ways. My own criticism of what he did may be over the top, which I regret to some degree, because I think that what bothered me is that Brzezinski was making more sense than nearly any of the candidates — and then Axelrad came out clearly trying to connect Hillary’s Iraq vote to the assassination of Bhutto. Some on the blog think he was 100% correct, and I understand why they are thinking this — I’m going to report more on why there is a legitimate connection between some of the things the Congress has done and what our mess is today — but to link what HRC did on that vote to the problems involved with America trying to reinject Bhutto into Pakistan just was very off mark for me.
    That doesn’t make what Hillary Clinton has done or said right either. As I’ve written countless times here, there is a great deal about Obama’s approach to foreign policy, or Edwards on economic policy — or Joe Biden to foreign policy — that I really like. While I’m not his greatest fan, I think Bill Richardson is one hell of a dealmaker and also gets international affairs.
    We do need someone in the White House who won’t define his presidency by leaning towards the pounding drums, or being overly reactive to micro events.
    Obama was on that course for a while — and something seems to have changed in recent weeks. I want him to go back to the big picture, alternative framing in national security he was offering before. I hope he does.
    In Hillary’s case, I think she can impress people like me if she demonstrates an ability to tie her clear experience with tomorrow’s problems. I really fear incrementalism from those who have been around too long. Her husband once responded to someone saying he lacked experience by stating that his opponents had experience, but the wrong kind of experience. That was a good retort.
    But really matters are the policy proposals and general architecture of a plan that will change our course — and honestly, I don’t see that kind of approach from anyone yet.
    More later — but wanted to respond seriously to your good comment.
    best, Steve Clemons


  6. rich says:

    An upfront disclaimer: Steve’s endured much unfair criticism, often coming straight out of right field. But not on this.
    Agreed that unity of purpose is much needed. From both sides of the aisle.
    Please produce any quote in which:
    “David Axelrod …assert[s] that Clinton bore responsibility for Bhutto’s assassination.”
    Now-civilian Wesley Clark likewise errs, openly, in repeating, “Obama’s campaign . . . seems to believe that Senator Clinton’s actions led to the tragic events in Pakistan.”
    Axelrod says no such thing. His words are much more sweeping. Which is why they prompt widespread ire.
    Steve IS correct in saying “We all are complicit then.”
    We are responsible for our government. This is America and responsibility is what makes it work. Where government forgets its place, it must be brought to heel; else Good Americans will equate to Good Germans in the history books. That’s how America is structured, legally; that’s the only claim America has to any exceptionalism.
    The Senate is not a ceremonial body. It has specific duties. Its job is to bring the Executive to heel when any current occupant forgets his place and adopts the tools of the despot, or practices torture & etc–with or without active approval.
    That’s the thing: Dems & Official Washington want credit for assisting/supporting the Prznt—AND credit for being NOT complicit in an unprovoked invasion that had no honest basis. You can’t be both. You’re either involved or you’re not. Obama’s right.
    When Hillary can’t get Senator right, she’s not fit to be Prznt.


  7. Joe Klein's conscience says:

    I am disappointed that Clark is supporting Hillary. It is obvious he is aiming for a job in her administration(should she win).


  8. JohnH says:

    Yes, POA, the only conference to be convened will consist of Disaster Capitalists (Halliburton, KBR, Lockheed, Blackwater, and the usual suspects) waiting for their share of the spoils. They probably started lining up at the door yesterday, heads full of sugar plum fairies and cluster bombs. What creative strategies can they devise to further loot the Treasury while bringing the joys of Iraqi style Democracy, Freedom and Capitalism to Pakistan?


  9. larry says:

    What a crock.
    Wes Clark and Hillary the ultimate hypocrites.
    Who is politicizing this with their gutter attacks ?? Hillary and her hatchet men.
    Right out of the Rove playbook. Attack your opponents for your own sins. Brilliant.


  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    You gotta be kidding me, Steve.
    You act as if Bhutto’s assasination is more needful of “leadership” than the criminally malfeasant day to day operations of the Bush Administration have been. How in God’s name can you expect these posturing lying pieces of shit to rise to the occassion after having failed us so miserably these last seven years?
    You really don’t have a clue what deep shit this country is in, do you? There ain’t no white knights riding to the rescue, Steve.


  11. TexasKat says:

    Hillary just told Wold Blitzer that she would send a retired military man to shuttle back and forth between Musharref and Karzai. Someone who can speak military man to military man.
    Wonder who that could be?


  12. ralphbon says:

    Well, by extension, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul stand alone among current Presidential contenders in having voted to not kill Benazir Bhutto.


  13. JohnH says:

    I think it would be a great idea to convene smart analysts with expertise on Pakistan. And let’s not limit it to the usual, group-thinking, inside the Beltway crowd. There must be plenty of thoughtful experts who don’t kowtow to neocons, Likuddites, and ‘defense’ lobbyists, who should be assigned a minimal role.
    We need real thinking, not the kind that has got us to where we are today with Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine, etc. etc.


  14. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve wrote,
    “David Axelrod blew it in my view yesterday with his assertion that Clinton bore responsibility for Bhutto’s assassination. We all are complicit then. The Dems have been complicit in continuing to empower the President to do what he will in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
    Steve, this is illogical and dishonest. You seem to be implying that all Democrats are *equally* complicit in empowering the Bush administration. And that is just factually erroneous.
    Clinton’s supporters appear to be in frantic denial over her record, and simply refuse to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton bears moral responsibility for her errors.


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