When members of U.S. Congress retire, they often wind up on K Street, lobbying their successors on behalf of corporate clients and foreign governments.
A handful chooses a less lucrative path, and few with as much distinction and influence as Lee Hamilton, who served 17 terms in the House of Representatives representing Indiana during a period that spans from the early days of the Vietnam War to the fall of the Soviet Union to the Gulf War to U.S. interventions in the former Yugoslavia.
Obama's foreign policy officials schooled by Lee Hamilton
Hamilton, 79, is stepping down this fall after 12 years heading the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is going home to Indiana, where he directs Indiana University's Center on Congress. He will not entirely disappear from Washington; he remains on several panels, including President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board and an Energy Department commission on nuclear waste.
Hamilton also keeps ties to half a dozen senior administration officials, including Obama's chief foreign-policy speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Christopher Kojm. All got their start as Hamilton staffers at the Wilson Center or on what was once called the House International Relations Committee, where Hamilton served for more than three decades.
In an interview Sept. 28 in his spacious eighth-floor office in the mammoth Ronald Reagan Building, Hamilton downplayed his influence. Although he hosted foreign-policy soirees for Obama during the 2008 campaign and presidential transition and was on the shortlist for secretary of state, Hamilton said he is not now "a close intimate advisor" of the president, but does "see some of his staff fairly regularly." To the extent he is an external sounding board for this or previous administrations, he says, "I am sometimes a partner, sometimes a critic." (In a recent NPR interview, Hamilton noted that so far, "not an awful lot of progress has been made" on foreign-policy issues since Obama took over.)
Rhodes said Obama "has on occasion reached out to him or asked me to share a speech. If he wants to make the president aware of something, there are multiple channels."
Not that Obama always takes Hamilton's advice.
On Iran, for example, Hamilton criticized the president for not making better use of a Turkish-Brazilian deal last spring that would have sent out 1,200 kilograms of Iran's low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.
Obama should not have dismissed the deal out of hand, Hamilton said, noting that "it wasn't too different from what we had suggested" to Iran last fall.
"I think we were offended that the Turks and Brazilians would do that and a little chagrined," Hamilton said. "We should have tried to build on the positive aspects of it, and I think we will have to get back to it" if negotiations resume this fall.
Although strongly in favor of engagement when it comes to Iran, Hamilton is no starry-eyed dove. The military option should remain on the table, he said. "I don't favor exercising it today," he said. "A year from now I don't know how I'll feel."
On the Middle East peace process, currently hanging by a thread, Hamilton said the "U.S. at some point will have to weigh in with its ideas as to how this matter can be resolved." The Israelis and Palestinians, he said, simply aren't up to it, and Obama will have to intervene.
Over the years, Hamilton has become the king of congressionally mandated investigations, from the 9/11 Commission to the Iraq Study Group, both of which he co-chaired.