Lessons from Bill: Call the S.O.B.

In January 2016, Bill Clinton’s presidential library made public transcripts of telephone calls between the president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The calls, placed between May 1997 and December 2000, represent, as the New York Times noted, “a time capsule . . . captur[ing] the priorities and perceptions of the moment that, judged with the harsh certainty of hindsight, look prescient or wildly off base.”

One remark of the former president is striking, not so much for its prescience or its predictive error but rather for what it tells us about the American foreign policy status quo and the potentially tragic enslavement of our presidents to media narrative. Speaking with Blair about Saddam Hussein, Clinton said, “If I weren’t constrained by the press, I would pick up the phone and call the son of a bitch. But that is such a heavy-laden decision in America. I can’t do that and I don’t think you can.”

Clinton’s statement is a loaded one. It tells us much about the traditional power of “media optics” in our national politics, much about the constraints such optics have placed upon our presidents—and much, also, about how President Donald Trump stands apart.

Would the world be a different place today if President Clinton had actually picked up the phone and called the S.O.B. in Baghdad? Clinton hoped to assure Saddam of his intentions: that he wanted the elimination of any chemical or biological weapons programs, not the destruction of the Iraqi regime itself. But, to keep the media at bay, Clinton relied upon third parties to make his point to Saddam. We are left only to wonder if Clinton’s message was ever really conveyed. And even if it was, did the Iraqi leader believe it given the impersonal and roundabout manner of its delivery?

As Winston Churchill once remarked, “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” This was not a call for some type of spineless appeasement—surrendering to the insatiable demands of a tyrant and strengthening that tyrant, in turn, to do his worst. Churchill’s call was for dialogue and interpersonal summit politics: discussion between leaders at the apex of government, without interference, and certainly without bowing before the dictates of the media.

Summitry Out of Favor
At root, President Clinton’s inability or unwillingness to call Saddam was based in politically-calculated risk-aversion. To protect his domestic image from media criticism—perhaps from those who would claim that he had “legitimized” Saddam Hussein, or that he was being “weak” just by talking to him—the president actually allowed a far greater risk to grow. As we now know, by 2003 a central part of the problem with Iraq was precisely a lack of communication. Bad information led to miscalculation on both sides. If Clinton, and George W. Bush after him, had actually been speaking to the S.O.B., might there have been verifiable assurances given about weapons programs? Could an understanding have been reached to avert war and all of its toll? We cannot know. But, as history has shown, it would have been worth a try. Given the rising tensions today with Iran, the lesson of this history is all the more important and worth remembering.

Summit politics—leader to leader, jaw to jaw—has fallen out of favor, in part, due to the rise of the administrative, bureaucratic state. Bill Clinton might have had domestic, political reasons to shy away from contacting bad actors in the world; but there was also a kind of “system-logic” to his choice. As the media repeatedly told us around the time of President Trump’s first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there are typically many exchanges between lower officials before any summit discussion is held. Trump’s meeting with that S.O.B. thus violated a modern “norm” of foreign policy: that everything must be worked out in advance by the technocrats, and that the actual leaders just show up to sign papers.

Such thinking is part and parcel of the impersonal, delegated politics that has slowly but surely stripped power from our elected officials—and thus from democracy, and thus from the people. Power has, instead, devolved to unelected, unaccountable personnel throughout the government, a permanent clique of insiders.

Understanding this development is key to recognizing why Clinton’s intuition about media fallout was right. It’s not that the media would have been so concerned with Clinton “legitimizing” a bad leader. What, after all, does this even mean? Holding power in a sovereign nation, commanding a military, and threatening not only a region but, potentially, the world itself qualifies one as a player on the global stage. Merely wishing this were not so is pointless.

And it’s not that the media might, for an opportunistic moment, parrot or amplify the most hawkish voices on the Right, deriding a president as “weak” for calling a foreign adversary. No. The real reason for Clinton’s media-fear, the real reason he didn’t just call the S.O.B., is this: Clinton knew, with all his media-savvy, that the D.C. press are friends with the D.C. permanent government class. These individuals are in the same club in the same city. They were in Washington when Clinton still lived in Little Rock. They would remain there when he moved to Chappaqua. For Clinton to go outside the lines, to usurp the planners and the permanent civil servants—to upset the status quo and those who imagine themselves entitled to rule within it—risked the wrath of institutional Washington.

Lessons of the Iran Deal
The process by which President Obama negotiated with Iran underscores the point. Countless rounds of meetings and sessions between American diplomatic personnel and Tehran resulted in a final agreement that did nothing but pay Iran to maintain the status quo of not having nuclear weapons for a temporary period of time. The agreement was, essentially, one-way appeasement, much like previous arrangements with North Korea. But it was also Establishment-approved, an example of the status quo maintaining itself at extraordinary cost, even if only for a little while longer.

Where, after all, was the summit between Barack Obama and the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah? At what point did Obama tell the Ayatollah, as only the President of the United States could do, to stand down his nuclear weapons program and cease aggression against Israel? This would have meant going jaw to jaw. This would have conveyed the fact that the United States was serious, that its president was serious, but also—and this is crucial—that its president was personally involved. Such involvement implies the possibility of real conversation, real dialogue, and creative solutions outside of bureaucratic system-think. It also means that the president’s personal prestige is on the line, which sends an unambiguous signal that America is as determined as the stakes are high.

Enter President Donald Trump. He has incurred the wrath of the media so feared by Clinton, and at a magnitude Clinton likely could never have imagined. In his willingness to do so, in the joyful way in which he revels in press hatred, Trump is unique among recent presidents. Mainstream coverage of Trump’s first summit with Kim stretched between incredulity and mockery. But this meeting represented a new tack; it acknowledged decades of failure by the permanent government class and its status quo. By first projecting strength, the president brought Kim to the table. They sat down. They went jaw to jaw. Whatever happens next, it cannot be for lack of dialogue, or failure of communication. Trump made it clear that the future of North Korea is in Kim’s hands and that the consequences for that future are his to bear.

Some of Trump’s meetings with Vladimir Putin have provided a similar kind of Establishment/media consternation. The comments of Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Clinton and subsequently a Washington think-tanker, are representative of the “elite” consensus. As Talbott told the Washington Post, the president’s “outrageous” secrecy, his daring to meet one-on-one with Putin, “handicaps the U.S. government—the experts and advisers and Cabinet officers who are there to serve [the president]—and it certainly gives Putin much more scope to manipulate Trump.”

Note that Talbott’s concern is that the U.S. government not be handicapped, by which he means fellow institutionalists within it. The government is many things, but the interests of Strobe Talbott’s careerist friends—those experts and advisers, and perhaps even a few Cabinet officers—are not synonymous with it. What actually matters is whether American foreign policy benefits, whether the people of America and their interests benefit, whether democratically-elected leadership is working. It is fairly rich, too, to hear a former American diplomat fret over the U.S. president being “manipulated.” The backdrop of this particular insult—that Trump must not be left unsupervised in a room with the Russian president—is the Russia-collusion hoax, itself a product of the same clique of D.C. insiders. The establishment is nothing if not thorough.

Forget “Media Optics,” Ditch the Deep State Handbook
Meeting jaw to jaw is no guarantee of results. To date, the standoff with North Korea is unresolved. Russia is an adversary and is acting like one, regardless of what happened in the meetings between Trump and Putin. And now, as the last few days have shown, Iran is moving center stage. By withdrawing from Obama’s Iran deal, Trump took the first step against the status quo and its illusion of security. The Iranian state is suffocating under the pressure of American sanctions; its recent, violent actions against cargo ships and an American drone demonstrate its growing desperation.

The president, to his credit, and by contrast, has coupled displays of strength with equal displays of restraint. The American retaliatory attack/non-attack, called off by Trump at the last moment, perfectly illustrates his posture: poised to take military action, but hoping to negotiate. The next, logical step is possibly a summit meeting with the Ayatollah. Trump has indicated his openness to future talks. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—with whom Trump has cultivated close, personal ties—appears willing to help facilitate the dialogue. These efforts should be encouraged. Summit politics with Iran may not work, but there is no use in wondering “what if” at the outbreak of a new war in the Middle East.

The point is this: the American president needs free rein to meet with his counterparts, to discuss the issues, to make American interests clear and unambiguous. If it turns out that diplomacy cannot solve the problem, then we will know we have tried. Ultimately this is a call for true transparency, the kind possible only between heads of government. This is the last but also, perhaps, the best failsafe in what can otherwise become the inevitable logic of war.

Foreign policy should not be conducted by the rules of media optics or according to the deep state handbook. Our president should not be left with regrets, nor should the nation. The president should lead. For everyone’s sake, he should pick up the phone. He should call the S.O.B.

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

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About Augustus P. Howard

Augustus P. Howard, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, holds a B.A. from Williams College, an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge, and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law. He has also served as a law clerk on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.