Obama Good on Appointments But Bad on Afghanistan

craig1by James M. Wall

President-elect Barack Obama wants the next eight years to be an era of audacious, not cosmetic changes. Do his early appointments reflect audacity or is he giving away too much to the cosmeticians?

And what about Afghanistan?  Is war still the answer?

Do Obama’s appointments and his Afghanistan policy serve his vision? First Emanuel and then Hillary. All those former Clintonites on the transition team?  And shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan is still playing the war card. What is going on in Obamaland? Let’s look at the record to date. First, the appointments. 

President Bill Clinton’s White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, is expected to assume the same position for Obama.  This was the same Craig who held the president’s hand during those dark nights of Monicagate.

Do we want that era brought back to light with Craig on board? Well, maybe we do. 

An attorney is best remembered for his most successful case, and as memory serves, Craig bested the US Senate in a case designed to remove a president for lying about private matters.

Besides, a newcomer like Obama could probably use a seasoned hand at rummaging through the White House tea leaves for creative solutions. So, score one for a smart move by Obama. It is, after all, his lawyer. Lawyers are supposed to advise on the law, not push an ideology.

Look at the appointment chess board and looming large is the choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. Any downside?  Columnists like David Broder and Tom Friedman both suggest it would be a bad appointment. They think she is better off staying in the Senate.

As time for her acceptance drags on, reports are surfacing that she may be entertaining those same thoughts. One reason? 

The wife of Bill Clinton has spent enough time in the White House to know that a strong president runs his own foreign policy. A Secretary of State does not take initiatives contrary to the wishes of a strong president. 

Clinton would bring a strong personal idealism to the position. But she may conclude she could exercise that idealism better as an independent member of Congress rather than as a member of Obama’s cabinet.

David Alexrod’s move from political consulting to Senior Advisor to the President is probably Obama’s smartest move thus far. Alexrod is in the White House as a political wise man able to tell the president how his actions will, or are, playing in power centers and to the public. He will be a Karl Rove with conscience.
In addition, Alexrod brings with him decades of experience in dealing with, and mentoring, Rahm Emanuel. He knows the new COS well enough to tell him when he is being a smart-alex and when he needs to take a deep breath.

Emanuel’s quick and decisive apology for his father’s negative remarks about Arabs to a Jerusalem newspaper had Alexrod’s fingerprints all over it.

Obama Health Daschle

Three significant cabinet appointments were made this week. Are are qualified and experienced choices; none are designed to satisfy the cosmeticians:

Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as Secretary of Health and Human Services  Eric Holder, as Attorney General and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.  

Daschle was the Senate Democratic majority leader until 2004 when voters ousted him from office. He has remained in Washington as a “public policy adviser and member of the legislative and public policy group at the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird.”

His firm does not list him as a lobbyist, which means he meets Obama’s criteria that no lobbyists will join his cabinet. Daschle’s wife might want to make a career change while her husband serves in the cabinet. Linda Hall Daschle is currently a lobbyist, working “mostly on behalf of airline-related companies”. 

What makes Daschle attractive for Health and Human Services is his knowledge of the Senate, and of the politics of medical care.  He has written a book, Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis  on “his proposals to improve health care, and he is working with former Senate leaders on recommendations to improve the system.”

Blogger Glenn Greenwald, a reliable progressive voice, sees Holder’s selection “as a very positive step”. He cites another blogger, Digby, who quoted at length 

. . . from an impassioned speech Holder gave in June of this year in which he condemned Guantanamo as an “international embarrassment”; charged that “for the last 6 years the position of leader of the Free World has been largely vacant”; complained that “we authorized torture and we let fear take precedence over the rule of law”; and called for an absolute end both to rendition and warrantless eavesdropping. 

He proclaimed that “the next president must move immediately to reclaim America’s standing in the world as a nation that cherishes and protects individual freedom and basic human rights. (Emphasis added).

Sounds like an answer to prayer for those who have been disgusted for so long over the behavior of the Bush Justice Department.  Assuming these steps are taken quickly, the new president will be able to send his newly appointed Secretary of State on a global tour to assure foreign governments that torture and rendition are out and human rights are in again as the basis of US policy.

Mike Allen, reporting for Politico.com, notes that Governor Napolitano will assume command over a “vast and troubled” agency. Napolitano is governor of a border state where she is familiar with immigration policy and border security issues, both of  which are part of Homeland Security’s responsibilities. napolitano

Allen also notes that Napolitano is Arizona’s first female attorney general. She was re-elected to a second four-year term as governor in 2006. 

These three cabinet appointments are creative and promising choices.

President-Elect Obama’s plans for shifting military forces from Iraq to Afghanistan are not only less promising; they are extremely disappointing. If Obama does follow through on his plans to focus US military power on Afghanistan, he will be continuing the failed policies of George Bush.

This policy is not change. It is sword rattling.  We had expected to see those swords battered into ploughshares.  As Chris Hedges has reminded the president-elect, war is not the answer:

War is a poison. It is a poison that nations and groups must at times ingest to ensure their survival. But, like any poison, it can kill you just as surely as the disease it is meant to eradicate. The poison of war courses unchecked through the body politic of the United States. We believe that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war.

Hedges warns that “Obama and those around him embrace the folly of the “war on terror.” Shifting war from Iraq to Afghanistan “is a difference in strategy, not policy”. And it is, Hedges argues, a strategy that has dire consequences at home as well as abroad.

These wars of occupation are doomed to failure. We cannot afford them. The rash of home foreclosures, the mounting job losses, the collapse of banks and the financial services industry, the poverty that is ripping apart the working class, our crumbling infrastructure and the killing of hapless Afghans in wedding parties and Iraqis by our iron fragmentation bombs are neatly interwoven. These events form a perfect circle. The costly forms of death we dispense on one side of the globe are hollowing us out from the inside at home. 

Hedge’s essay links our current economic collapse to the failure of our empirical project which seduced this nation into a false faith in military solutions for every problem:

America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals, but those who promote the perverted ideology of national security that, as Andrew Bacevich writes, is “our surrogate religion.” If we continue to believe that we can expand our wars and go deeper into debt to maintain an unsustainable level of consumption, we will dynamite the foundations of our society. 

“The Big Lies are not the pledge of tax cuts, universal health care, family values restored, or a world rendered peaceful through forceful demonstrations of American leadership,” Bacevich writes in “The Limits of Power.” “The Big Lies are the truths that remain unspoken: that freedom has an underside; that nations, like households, must ultimately live within their means; that history’s purpose, the subject of so many confident pronouncements, remains inscrutable. Above all, there is this: Power is finite.

President-elect Obama keeps books on his bedside table.  I believe he actually reads them.Thus far, he has made some good appointments. But I am concerned that the books he is reported to be reading focus too much on political tactics and not enough on change–Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: Franklin Roosevelt and the First Hundred Days (2006), and Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s  Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005).

With all due respect, Mr. President-Elect, may I suggest some new authors for you to consider: Chris Hedges, and Andrew Bacevich. They both know that the era of building an empire on the backs of developing nations is over.

 Photos of Gregory B. Craig, Tom Daschle and Governor Janet Napolitano are from the Associated Press

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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