The Establishment's Thanksgiving
Surprisingly this Thanksgiving, the Washington Establishment had a lot to give thanks for. And its chief mouthpiece – the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page – was glowing over its good fortune in the three-plus weeks since Barack Obama's election.
On Friday, the Post’s lead editorial thanked President-elect Obama for settling on insider favorites for key jobs, especially officials with long records of promoting the neocon foreign policy agenda.
In Post speak, Obama “has so far placed an admirable emphasis on proven competence over personal loyalty or political purity.”
In the frame of the Washington Establishment, “proven competence” means you were a strong supporter of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and see any failure there as a matter of Donald Rumsfeld’s tactical mistakes, not fundamental misjudgments. You also must show a manly regard for the brilliant “surge” strategy.
The Post’s sneer about “political purity” refers to someone who either opposed the Iraq War from the start or broke from the Washington consensus early and wants as swift a withdrawal as possible.
The Post editorial writers were especially excited over the prospect of Obama keeping Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. “We hereby join what undoubtedly will be the large chorus that hails this choice,” they wrote.
The Post also hailed the expected selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and the early appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff. The common denominator of the three is a close association with Bush’s Iraq War – Gates as its current defender and Clinton and Emanuel as neocon-lite Democrats who were early advocates.
The troika of Gates, Clinton and Emanuel – with a supporting cast of Bush administration holdovers at the Pentagon and “centrist Democrats” from the Brookings Institution moving to State – will mean at minimum that Obama will encounter many dragging feet slowing a military withdrawal from Iraq.
Obama may think it’s quite clever – or at least literary – to assemble “a team of rivals” in the mold of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. But he’s likely in for a rude awakening over what it means in the world of modern Washington to assemble an administration in which top players and their subordinates don’t agree with your positions.
At a news conference on Nov. 26, Obama brushed aside this concern with a confidence in the strength of his persuasive powers to prevail over any institutional resistance.
“Understand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost," Obama said. "It comes from me. That's my job, is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure that my team is implementing it."
The Big Winner
Nevertheless, the surprise big winner of the Obama transition has been the Washington Establishment, which you might have thought on Election Night to have been one of the biggest losers.
In many ways, the decisive victory for Obama’s “change” message represented a burning desire among many Americans to shake things up in Washington, bring in some new faces and give the nation a fresh start.
Many voters saw Obama as the anti-Establishment candidate, a young African-American who had the wisdom to oppose the Iraq War from the start, versus a long-time Establishment favorite, John McCain, who envisioned a near-permanent U.S. presence in Iraq.
More broadly, Obama’s victory was a repudiation of George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency, which started with the Establishment cheering on the Texas governor and the supposed “adults” who would return with him to Washington.
In 2002-03, the Establishment also offered an enthusiastic embrace of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his neocon theory of using U.S. military force to remake the Middle East. As hubristic and crazy as that agenda may appear in retrospect, it was Washington’s conventional wisdom well into 2005 and arguably later.
During that time, the Post’s editorial page made a particular point of demeaning apostates from the Establishment, like former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who broke ranks and challenged the basis for the Iraq invasion. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “WPost’s Editorial Fantasyland.”]
Given all this, you might have thought that President-elect Obama would show distrust of this discredited crowd – and seek out new faces.
Or, at least you might have thought that Obama would carefully pick through the Establishment seeking the few Wise Men (and Women) who had resisted the reckless and feckless conventional wisdom. You might have thought he meant what he said about changing “the mindset” that led to the Iraq War.
But that does not now appear to be the case. Obama seems intent on rewarding those who carefully kept their seats at the Establishment’s dinner table during the Bush years, while leaving out in the cold those who truly put country first and accepted outcast status rather than collaborate with the power structure on a misbegotten war.
There is an old truism in Washington: There's no honor in being right too soon; people just remember that you were out of step and crazy.
The only high-level exception in the Obama transition may be retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who is said to be in line for White House national security adviser. Though no liberal, Jones opposed the Iraq War, representing a faction of the military brass who challenged neocon ideologues, like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, over casually wanting to send young American soldiers and Marines into poorly conceived wars.
As disappointing – and even distasteful – as Obama’s personnel strategy may be, his thinking may be realistic, though cynical. He may be calculating that the success of his presidency depends on his ability to co-opt the Washington Establishment or at least lessen its hostility.
In other words, the self-absorbed Washington Establishment may be totally wrongheaded, but it is no doubt influential. When a political figure gets on its bad side – like, for instance, “know-it-all” Al Gore in Campaign 2000 – the target faces an open season of withering ridicule. [For examples on Gore, see our book, Neck Deep.]
The Washington Establishment’s contempt for Bill Clinton also was a factor in how embattled his presidency was during its eight years and how modest his accomplishments, including his failure to enact a national health care plan.
In 1998, after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke, Washington Post society columnist (and Georgetown doyenne) Sally Quinn explained the source of the anti-Clinton hostility, tracing it back to a line in Clinton’s First Inaugural Address in 1993.
Quinn wrote that Clinton had insulted the Washington Establishment when he described the capital as “a place of intrigue and calculation [where] powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way.”
Though Clinton’s comment was undeniably true, it got under the skin of the thin-skinned Establishment and deepened into a burning anger over the next several years. The Post and much of the mainstream press joined the Republicans and the right-wing media in a steady drumbeat of accusations challenging the ethics of the Clintons and their associates.
When Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky surfaced in 1998, Quinn wrote that the insider community wanted Clinton to pack up immediately and leave town.
“Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the Presidency and the city any more humiliation,” Quinn wrote.
Beyond this example of the Establishment’s unbridled self-importance – sitting in judgment of a twice-elected President – there also was the hypocrisy, since many Washington power brokers have dabbled in extramarital sex themselves, including Sally Quinn who had a notorious affair with Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, breaking up his first marriage.
Nevertheless, Obama may be thinking that it’s better to accommodate the Washington Establishment on a touchy point like the Iraq War than to offend the Post’s editorial writers and the many well-connected guests attending Georgetown dinner parties this holiday season.
So, instead of cocktail chatter about Obama bringing in some dreaded “outsiders” who feel they know better than “us,” there will be polite conversation about how Obama is getting off on the right foot by not challenging the ways of Washington and by keeping soft-spoken favorite Robert Gates. [For more on Gates, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates” and “Robert Gates: As Bad as Rumsfeld?”]
The trade-off is a dicey one, but Obama may feel it is worth the risk if he buys some time for pushing through a domestic agenda, including a major economic stimulus package, infrastructure rebuilding, a new generation of “green” jobs, and national health insurance.
As undeserving as the Washington Establishment may be, Obama may want these pooh-bahs in the tent pissing out rather than the other possibility.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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