Fear and Loathing on the 2008 Campaign Trail, Part 3: Obama Makes a Fateful Decision

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)


For previous articles in this series see:

Fear and Loathing on the 2008 Campaign Trail, Part 1: Things Get Nasty

Fear and Loathing on the 2008 Campaign Trail, Part 2: The Birth of Birtherism

Once Obama had secured the nomination and defeated McCain, the hatchet had supposedly been buried between him and Hillary Clinton.  But, some animosity remained.  Sure, there was the emphatic endorsement, the show of unity, Hillary stumping for Obama on the campaign trail and the Bill/Barack show of love in Florida in the campaign’s dying days.  Secretly, the Clintons viewed Obama as a lightweight and usurper and someone who had denied Hillary her rightful place to the throne.  On the other side, Obama really saw no need for either Clinton and expressed some dislike of being expected to kiss the Clinton rings.  Yet, rumors started to float that Obama was considering Hillary Clinton to lead the Department of State.

When the rumors surfaced, several columnists rang the alarm bells.  Thomas Friedman described it as an “appointment with disaster.”  David Ignatius fretted over the possibility of Clinton “subcontracting” foreign policy.  David Broder worried that foreign leaders would curry favor with Bill Clinton and his Foundation. 

On the other side, Hillary’s biggest booster was newly installed chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel.  He argued that her star power and her network of foreign leaders would allow her to hit the ground running on equal footing with her foreign counterparts.  Besides, the first year of the Obama presidency would be dealing with the financial crisis that was dominating the news cycle.  Handing off the bulk of foreign policy to Hillary Clinton made political sense.  Another consideration was the position itself.  

There are usually foreign policy fights in any administration as various agencies vie for the President’s ear.  It became obvious that Robert Gates would stay on at Defense and he had a favorable view of Clinton.  Likewise, she had good relations with Vice President Biden.  The other two candidates on the list- John Kerry and Bill Richardson- were dismissed for different reasons.  Kerry’s relationship with Biden was troubled while Richardson had no star power and was considered somewhat of a “Judas” in Democrat circles.

Eventually, Obama decided to name Hillary as Secretary of State.  However, the problem, from Obama’s standpoint, was not so much Hillary, but Bill.  Obama had to use Bill’s leverage and association with foreign leaders while keeping him at arm’s length.  This could be achieved through appointing Hillary Clinton.  Clinton noted her ambivalence just in case the Bill-vetting turned up any problems and she was not named as Secretary of State.  

As things turned out, Obama made the choice and she was confirmed by the Senate in early 2009.  There was the problem of Bill and the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of foreign donations.  That was worked out in a 2009 agreement where any business pending before the State Department by a Clinton foreign donor would be scrutinized more closely and the Clinton Foundation would publicly reveal all foreign donations.  We know that once the agreement was forged, the Clinton Foundation found numerous ways around it and some deals were neither scrutinized nor made public at all.  Part of the reason is the byzantine organization of the Clinton Foundation and its parallels in foreign countries.  

As Secretary of State, one of the first things Obama ordered upon being sworn in was a comprehensive review of US policy toward Russia.  Out of this grew the infamous “Russia reset.”  That came about after the Obama administration came to the conclusion that by 2008, relations between the two countries were trapped in a dead end centered on the issues of a missile defense system in Europe, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep, the unilateral independence of Kosovo, and Russian aggression in Georgia.  The gamble was to create some breathing room and a strategic pause where contentious issues like those cited above could be isolated while concentrating on areas of mutual cooperation.  The situation involving Russia in  Georgia was essentially frozen in place to clear the path for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and to restart Russian-American cooperation as concerns the use of civilian nuclear energy.  

Technical problems intervened that held up the deployment of an ABM system for Europe which caused Obama to use that as an excuse to scrap the plan altogether.  In response, Russia agreed to strengthen sanctions against Iran over their nuclear ambitions.  Both sides looked to bolster economic relations leading to increased US investment in the Skolkovo tech-hub being developed by Russia.  ExxonMobil entered into an agreement with Rosneft to develop energy fields in the Arctic.

However, the success of the reset depended on a number of factors.  Chief among them was Ukraine.  Legislation, then sponsored by Senator Obama, left the door open to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, but that the United States would not force them into that decision.  The 2010 election of President Victor Yanukovych in Ukraine saw the Kiev government take itself off the NATO agenda while simultaneously agreeing to a long-term Russian naval presence in the Crimea.  Secondly, although everyone knew that Putin was still the “leader” in Russia, with Dimitry Medvedev as president it presented the West with a younger, more reform-minded leader to deal with in these matters.

Putin’s decision to seek the Russian presidency in 2012 and the 2011 parliamentary election results damaged the optics of the reset.  While the Obama administration, spearheaded by Clinton, may have opted for the reset with the best of intentions, they were naive to believe that Putin and his minions would not politically rear their heads again.  

Then two things happened on Obama’s side that changed things in Russia.  The first was the decision to refashion, not scrap, the proposed deployment of an ABM system in Europe.  While progress was being made with respect to Iran, the administration seemed to adopt the Bush idea that the system was designed to protect Europe from Iran, not Russia.  Russia always looked upon the system as aimed at them.  It appeared as if Obama was going back on his word and Russia, always paranoid, was having that paranoia confirmed.

Secondly, actions in Libya were a deciding factor for Russia.  They abstained from a UN Security Council resolution providing a no-fly zone over Libya.  Instead, the United States and NATO allies became co-belligerents in favor of the anti-Gaddafi rebels.  Russia later used its veto power against a no-fly zone in Syria since Russia had definite interests there, not least of which was an alliance with Assad and a naval base that gave Russia direct access to the Meditteranean Sea.  This was perceived in Washington as Putin’s intransigent support of a brutal dictator.  To make matters even worse, a planned summit between Obama and Putin was cancelled when Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden.  The nail in the coffin, however, remained Ukraine.  Once the Maidan Revolution installed a pro-Western government in Kiev, the reset was essentially dead.  Too many events happened that, in the mind of Putin and the Russians, proved that whether Bush or Obama was in the White House, Russian interests were being ignored and the US was out to isolate Russia geopolitically.

Next: Obama, Clinton and complicated relations with Russia