(Washington, D.C.): President Clinton’s decision to abandon his nominee to the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Lani Guinier, is a prudent move that will save his floundering presidency considerable grief. More importantly, it may even save his presidency if it establishes personnel standards and recruitment practices that are applied elsewhere in his Administration.
Lessons from the Guinier Experience
In announcing his withdrawal of Professor Guinier’s nomination last night, Mr. Clinton said "Had I read [her writings] before I nominated her, I would not have done so." This was so, he maintained, because his belated examination of her numerous published law review articles persuaded him that he would have been obliged in the predicted, bruising Senate confirmation fight to support ideas "that I can’t myself defend."
Of course, a President of the United States cannot be expected to read all the published works of every nominee for senior positions in his Administration. He has to rely on those to whom he has entrusted the job of identifying and screening potential office-holders. Hence, the first lesson President Clinton should take away from the Guinier experience: He has been poorly served by those — including his wife and her coterie of unaccountable but ever-so-politically-correct friends — who have to date wielded immense influence over personnel decisions, including that of Ms. Guinier. They should not be allowed to do so in the future.
The second lesson is that the President had better be careful to establish that those he would have serve in his Administration share the values and positions to which he himself subscribes. Presumably, the latter are the same ones that he portrayed to the American people in the course of the campaign and that earned him his job.
As the appointment of David Gergen to the post of Counselor to the President has helpfully reminded everyone, these publicly proclaimed values and positions were centrist — if not conservative — in most respects. The umbrella term Candidate Clinton used to describe them was "New Democrat" which he sharply contrasted with the sort of discredited, left-wing "Old Democrat" ideology that Lani Guinier and the people who nearly foisted her on his Justice Department personify.
The third lesson should be that, had President Clinton made the mistake of sticking with the Guinier nomination — as the usual "Old Democrat" suspects like Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus and feminist organizations demanded of him — the least of his problems would have been with her confirmation fight. As the old line goes, people are policy; people bent on pursuing their own agenda rather than the President’s will cause him no end of grief. Indeed, bad personnel choices are frequently able to deny the President options that would advance his program by foreclosing them, for example through policy decisions made at bureaucratic levels well below the Oval Office.
The Guinier Syndrome in the Defense Department
President Clinton and Counselor Gergen would do well to apply these lessons to Morton Halperin who is expected to be nominated for the new Pentagon position of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Democracy and Human Rights. Halperin has not held government office since he left government in the early 1970s after playing a role in the unauthorized publication of classified documents which became known as "the Pentagon Papers."
In the intervening period, Halperin became the bête noire of the national security community and the darling of the radical left. From vantage points like the hard left Institute for Policy Studies and the anti-military Center for Defense Information, he held forth about the need to end all government security classification and campaigned for the dismantling of U.S. intelligence capabilities and agencies. Halperin actually went so far as to aid and abet Philip Agee and others in their efforts to reveal publicly the identities of American covert operatives — thereby jeopardizing these individuals’ lives and compromising their missions on behalf of the national security.
In short, it seems inconceivable that President Clinton could be aware of — let alone have read — the writings of Morton Halperin. Halperin’s collected works would be anathema to any bona fide "New Democrat." They are certainly sufficiently indefensible to assure that his confirmation battle would make Lani Guinier’s difficulties with the Senate look like a cake walk.
This prospect perhaps explains why Halperin’s nomination has not yet been formally transmitted from the White House to the Senate. It does not, however, explain why such an individual has been permitted to operate now in the Pentagon for several months, to obtain a Top Secret security clearance and access to some of the Nation’s most sensitive secrets and to play an important role in defense policy-making — all without the Senate’s blessing.
The Bottom Line
The national interest demands that the Senate Armed Services Committee (which exercises jurisdiction over the Pentagon’s presidential nominees) now render a service to the President — and the country — comparable to that performed in recent days on the Guinier nomination by the Judiciary Committee. It must bring to his attention Morton Halperin’s unacceptability as a candidate for high office in the Defense Department and the need to terminate the activities he is presently and presumptuously engaged in the absence of the Senate’s approval, or even a formal presidential nomination.
Fortunately, there are indications that the Armed Services Committee has begun to express serious concern about other candidates for top policy jobs in the Defense Department, including Assistant Secretaries-designate Ashton Carter and Graham Allison.(2) These individuals, unlike Halperin, have at least been officially nominated to presidential appointments. Both, however, have — like Halperin — reportedly engaged in policy-making functions that are only supposed to be performed by duly confirmed individuals. As a result, their nominations may also be in trouble on the Hill.(3)
If members of the Senate continue to value their constitutional prerogatives (something of an open question in light of the Senate’s rubber-stamping of START I and other recent arms control agreements), they had best help President Clinton come to grips with key personnel decisions at the Defense Department. These are, after all, decisions that may ultimately prove to be far larger problems for the national interest and the Clinton presidency than the Guinier nomination ever was.
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1. "New Democrat" Watch is a series of Decision Briefs designed to illuminate important security policy decisions pending before the Clinton Administration. These decisions will do much to determine the compatability of Clinton policies with the U.S. national interest. They will also provide objective measures of the President’s follow-through on his commitment to abandon the left wing, "Old Democrat" behavior that has afflicted and undermined his presidency thus far.
3. Carter and Allison should be in difficulty anyway for substantive reasons: The former has been an inveterate opponent of effective strategic defenses and advocate for the obsolete Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Clinton Administration has already gone quite far toward dismantling the U.S. missile defense program in keeping with Ash Carter’s recommendations — and will almost surely come greatly to regret having done so. For his part, Allison was a prime-mover behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s last desperate bid to hold onto power, the so-called "Grand Bargain" scheme which Allison and the Soviet communists hoped would infuse tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into Moscow center’s coffers just as the USSR was unravelling.