Sorry, Hillary: I Should Have Voted for You

I once called Clinton the Celine Dion of politics. I’d rather have that now than Obama.

Hillary, I owe you an apology.

No, not a Washington Apology of the "Regrettably, mistakes have been made" variety. A real apology.

Back in 2008, I was sure -- absolutely, completely, utterly sure -- that Barack Obama would make a better president than you would. With the benefit of hindsight, I now think I was wrong. 

Perhaps not absolutely, completely, utterly wrong, but wrong all the same.

I fell in love with Barack Obama because of his book. (That's "love" in the platonic, political sense, readers. Get your minds out of the gutter.) Dreams from My Father was a good book. It was nuanced, big-hearted, brave, and painfully honest: all art, no artifice. It was, in other words, all the things American electoral politics is not.

I wanted a president like that. I wanted that so much, I convinced myself that Obama's relative lack of Washington political experience didn't matter. In fact, I convinced myself that his lack of experience was a plus: With only two years in the Senate, he was still uninfected by the Washington miasma of cynicism, falsehood, and pettiness.

You, Hillary, on the other hand? By 2008, you (or your ghostwriters) had produced several books, including Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets, of which the less said the better, along with It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us and An Invitation to the White House, a pictorial account of life as first lady. 

It was all so sanitized. So studiously uninteresting. So full of carefully calibrated anecdotes designed to sound human without actually revealing anything. ("Mrs. Barak and I did not stay awake as late as our husbands did.") It was so ... Washington.

Your presidential campaign was more of the same. At the time, I was writing a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times, and I had some harsh words for you, Hillary: "[H]er policy platform offers more pablum than principle, more formula than inspiration." I even chastised you for picking a particularly vapid Celine Dion track as your campaign's theme song. "Hillary Clinton: Politics = Celine Dion: Music," I wrote.

I'm sorry, Hillary. That was mean. No one, but no one, deserves to be compared to Celine Dion.

Meanwhile, I said lots of nice things about Barack Obama, a few of which I now blush to recall -- though as a dutiful journalist I tried hard not to let my literary adulation overwhelm my judgment. "He's not the messiah," I noted sagely in an August 2008 column.

No, he is not.

Like many other once-ardent Obama supporters, I've spent the last five years with a mounting sensation of buyer's remorse. "[I]f Obama puts into his foreign policy strategy one-tenth of the talent, innovation and discipline he put into his campaign," I wrote after the 2008 election, "he'll be able to make real headway on a range of critical issues." But maybe that grueling campaign just wore him out. In the Obama White House, innovation became reactiveness, discipline became rigidity, and a tight inner circle of campaign aides and Chicago pals tried to micro-manage the entire executive branch. 

I have written elsewhere about some of the Obama administration's self-inflicted wounds, so I won't go into detail here. But it's been painful to watch the team that ran such a brilliant campaign flail around in search of a strategy, bungle their relationship with Congress, botch rollout after rollout, and miss opportunity after opportunity.

I still think Obama's a whole lot better than the other guys would have been -- for all the disappointments, his administration has scored some solid and important achievements. But I'm no longer sure he's better than the other gal would have been.

Here's the irony, Hillary: Arguably, the very qualities that allowed Barack Obama to write an inspiring book like Dreams from my Father are some of the same qualities that have kept him from being an inspiring president. 

Obama's an introvert: Unlike your husband Bill, who draws energy from crowds and loves a good political brawl like other men love football, Obama's clearly happiest within the small circle of people he knows and trusts. The tide of idealism that swept him into the White House sustained him through those hard months of campaigning, but wasn't enough to carry him through the tedium of governing. He likes to read and write and think, but he doesn't much want to shake hands, curry favor with grandstanding congressmen, or sit through ceremonial meetings with foreign dignitaries.

Look at his tight body language; listen to the undertone of irritation in his voice. Barack Obama is a man who almost always looks and sounds like he'd prefer to be somewhere else. He's a politician who hates politics.

On some level, I can't blame him a bit. I'd hate it too. Then again, I didn't ask millions of Americans to send me to the White House.

Hillary, I suspect that you don't like politics any more than Obama does -- but unlike Obama, you've schooled yourself to mix it up with the naturals. I still remember the Hillary of the early 1990s, with her unfashionable hair and her unscripted, impolitic comments. I liked that Hillary. But the right pilloried you and the press wasn't much friendlier.

Yet inexplicably -- and unlike Obama -- you decided that you were going to learn how to be an effective politician, even if you hated every single second of it. You got knocked down and you just kept right on getting back up again. You survived Cookie-gate and Whitewater and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and, well, let's not go there.

You learned how to censor yourself. You got a stylist and a staff of loyal guard dogs; you developed a hard, polished protective shell. You ran for Senate, and charmed some of the same Republican senators who had once scorned you. You slogged away, getting political experience. You shook a million hands and smiled a big fake smile until your face looked like it might crack. 

I didn't like your polished shell, and I didn't like your fake smile, but it's 2014, and I'm ready to repent. Hillary, you did what you had to do to survive -- and ultimately thrive -- in a hostile political landscape. You learned how to work the levers of power, manage vast unwieldy executive branch agencies, and compromise, wheedle, and trade -- all things that Obama's core team still seems to struggle with. Unlike Obama, who until recently led a fairly charmed political life, you had to learn, repeatedly, how to lose. Perhaps, in the end, that taught you how to win.

As secretary of state, you more or less lived on the road, taking on the most unglamorous diplomatic chores. Even as the president's relationship with the Hill grew more toxic, you squeezed every last drop from those hard-earned relationships in Congress. In public, you loyally went to bat for your one-time rival's policies, even when you privately disagreed.

And several little birdies among my friends (guilt-ridden Obama loyalists one and all) tell me that you often did disagree -- that you were the one person in the White House Situation Room who consistently asked the hard questions no one else wanted to touch, the one person who didn't just go along with the crowd. Brava.

Hillary, I can't say I'm a complete convert. I'd still like to see you take more political risks in public, even as I've reluctantly come to understand why you don't. And I'm still troubled by the infighting that seems to dog your own inner circle, and the "you're either with us or you're against us" attitude exuded by many of your loyalists. I hope you will learn both from Obama's mistakes and from your own: Without diversity, openness, humor, and a willingness to be challenged and to change, no team can succeed for long.

All the same, Hillary, I should have voted for you in 2008. If you run, I'll vote for you in 2016. As a down payment on that promise, I've even started to read your latest book, Hard Choices. 

Hillary, I won't pretend it's a scintillating read. You've offered us 635 pages of numbing detail, interlaced with political pieties ("I approached my work with confidence in our country's enduring strength and purpose") and faux-intimate revelations ("Michelle [Obama] and I bonded over the challenges of raising a family in the public eye").

Hard Choices is a cautious book, a calculated balancing act that neither offends nor inspires. It's certainly no Dreams from My Father. But it will, I think, get the job done -- and in the end, that's not so shabby, is it?

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Even Killer Robots Have a Gender Gap

The United Nations isn't following its own rules on equality -- and it's time to make it start.

When the first multilateral meeting on the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) convened at the U.N. in Geneva in May, not one woman was called to speak on the expert panels that informed the discussions. The weapons, more popularly known as "killer robots," are not a gendered issue -- as all matters of conflict do, they will impact women and men alike. Yet it seems that no "qualified" woman could be found to act as one of the 18 purported experts that the U.N. treaty organization called to give their views on the implications these weapons have for ethics, laws of war, and technical and operational issues.

Though independent groups and activists have as a whole made headway in being heard on disarmament and security issues, women too often remain sidelined in official and semi-official settings. The worldwide campaign against LAWS is a perfect example -- and a model for how to push back.

The previous November, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) had agreed to hold informal talks on the weapons after just seven months of pressure by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, launched in April 2013. Government delegations, U.N. agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations under the banner of the campaign participated. 

These weapons are already under development by several countries. They would completely eliminate a role for human judgment and compassion in making decisions about when to use a lethal weapon, endangering civilians both in wartime and in policing situations. The result of a misjudgment would most likely be fatal. Such weapons should be banned before it is too late to halt their development.

Officially, only the Norwegian government protested the exclusion of women, citing highly touted -- if little practiced -- U.N. resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. At the same, however, the government pointed out that all of the so-called side events, organized by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR) on the same topics covered by the official sessions, were gender balanced.

Behind the scenes, several men from the CSKR were quietly told that the reason that all of the "expert presenters" were men was because "there were no suitable women to fill the slots." But just what does it mean that there were no suitable women to speak as experts on peace security? And why are governments still resisting women's inclusion?

Resolution 1325, cited by the Norwegians, "[u]rges Member States to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict." Since its passage, though, precious few peace negotiations have included any women at all. And as demonstrated in the Geneva discussions on LAWS, we remain "unsuitable" to even give an expert opinion on ethics or the laws of war, let alone on robotic weapons themselves.

Despite all the bluster and high-sounding words about the need for "diversity," "inclusion," and for "empowering women," neither the bluster nor the words have resulted in meaningful change.

To be sure, U.N. officials and governments alike credited the work of the campaign for bringing the issue to the fore and spurring the talks. The campaign had taken an issue that had not been publicly discussed and within a year brought it to the halls of the U.N. for this first "expert session" on the weapons. 

The recognition and increased acceptance of the role of independent groups and activists in arms control and disarmament discussions is in many ways a tribute to the hard work of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, of which I was the founding coordinator, and the Cluster Munition Coalition, each of which worked closely with governments, U.N. agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to successfully ban landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008.

Needless to say, the CSKR publicly protested the lack of women among the experts in the Geneva sessions -- and we were joined by one of the expert presenters as well. The official response to our questions about why women were not included was weak and unconvincing, and officials indicated that we should be pleased that at least one of the moderators of an expert panel was a woman from one of the government delegations.

While governments continue to resist gender balance, nongovernmental organizations and activists will continue to press for change. In fact, as a result of the Geneva talks, campaign members are taking an even more active stance to end gender discrimination in global policymaking. 

One of the founding members of the campaign, a British organization known as Article 36 -- refering to a Geneva Convention protocol regarding new weapons and methods of warfare -- began compiling a list of men working in the field of peace and security who would make a commitment not to speak on panels that include only men. 

Within a days of opening the list, more than three dozen men had already signed on -- and the list is being shared beyond members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Other campaign members have begun compiling lists of women working in these areas to facilitate the ability of governments to find "suitable" women experts.

Government and U.N. bodies need to recognize the critical role women play in helping shape disarmament, peace, and security discussions, and to recognize, solicit, and promote women's expertise in contributing to our own security in an insecure world. That time is well past due -- and the reaction to the U.N.'s failure to enforce its standards show that women, and men, aren't willing to wait any longer.

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