News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 5, 2008

STEPHANIE SALTER: When Lee Hamilton talks, serious politicos tend to listen

By Stephanie Salter

TERRE HAUTE — For people who like their political contests clear-cut and their candidates one-dimensional, Lee Hamilton’s endorsement of Barack Obama for president barely registered this past week.

After all, if you’re content to dismiss Obama as a gifted speaker but “an empty suit,” what do you care that the former Indiana Congressman chaired the House committees on both foreign affairs and security?

If you get a giggle out of referring to Obama by his middle name (Hussein), how much can it matter that Hamilton also chaired the 9/11 Commission, was co-vice-chair of the Iraq Study Group, and currently serves on the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council?

If, on the other hand, you are someone who believes that people and presidential campaigns are infinitely complex, Hamilton’s stated choice for commander in chief was a grabber.

During his 34 years in the House of Representatives, Hamilton gained bipartisan respect as a deep, careful and open-minded expert on global affairs and the U.S. role in those affairs. Just two-weeks shy of his 77th birthday (April 20), he has filled his retirement with serving on the two commissions, the Homeland Security council, as a consultant to the CIA and with running the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. — among other jobs.

According to a story last month in The New Republic by senior editor Noam Scheiber, Hamilton has been a kind of off-stage, informal guru for Obama’s foreign policy advisers since day one of the campaign.

Obama’s foreign policy speech writer is Ben Rhodes, who assisted in writing Hamilton’s 9/11 Commission memoirs and “key chunks” of the Iraq Study Group Report. Three other former Hamilton aides — Denis McDonough, Dan Shapiro, Dan Restrepo — occupy significant spots on Obama’s foreign policy staff.

Even Obama advisers who served in the Clinton administration tend to subscribe more to a Hamiltonian philosophy than that of their former boss or any other high-profile political figure.

To Scheiber, “Hamilton is the kind of pragmatic, non-ideological foreign policy eminence who can flirt with heterodoxy without losing respectability.”

In other words, he is so experienced, even-keeled and devoid of the compulsion to enforce a rigid view of the world on others, he can credibly support the invasion of Bosnia, oppose the Iraq War and recommend — before Obama ever suggested it — that talks with dictators such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should not be excluded from serious efforts at peace.

Last week, Hamilton spent much of the day of his endorsement returning calls from the news media and from undecided Democratic superdelegates who will bestow their precious votes on Obama or Hillary Clinton.

During our telephone conversation, Hamilton reiterated his reasons for green-lighting Obama despite the existence of two other “fine candidates for president.” He also discussed the “very dangerous array” of challenges the next president will face.

“There’s Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the re-emergence of Russia, and Pakistan — it’s a very difficult country for us now, Pakistan, because of the new leadership. There is radical Islam and how to deal with [resultant] terrorism, the rise of China and India. And there are always the crises that emerge in areas like poverty, disease, climate change and globalization … It’s a formidable agenda that will confront the next president,” he said.

Obama’s apparent desire — and ability — to bring disparate factions together, domestically and globally, make him the best-equipped person to tackle that agenda, Hamilton said.

“The beginning point for me is, what kind of leadership does the country need at this juncture? … It’s a pretty evenly divided country with a high degree of partisanship, which makes it very difficult to get things done. The greatest skill is the ability to bring people together and to build consensus.”

Obama, Hamilton said, “does not, in his rhetoric, exacerbate the division in this country. He genuinely seems interested in the common good … I’m impressed that he’s changing the contours of the American political process.”

That change is precisely the antidote the Capitol Hill veteran believes is necessary, given so many years of poisonous relations in Washington.

“We have a government that’s been governing by division, by attacking and exacerbating the differences rather than trying to transcend them,” Hamilton said.

“The big question today in politics is, ‘What happened to the center?’ Our politics have become more extreme, more bipartisan.”

Even if the new president enjoys a majority in Congress, it won’t be a large one, Hamilton warned: “It’s always possible you can ram through a vote, 51-49, in the Senate, and 51 to 49 percent in the House, but you don’t really get a solution that way with our politics.”

Hamilton’s experience with the Iraq Study Group, he said, was a pointed reminder of the ways partisan politics once did, and can, work.

“The trick here is to consult and to talk and talk and talk and talk,” he said. “There were 10 of us … five Democrats and five Republicans. [Chairman] Jim Baker insisted we get to know each other first. The first few times we met were entirely social.”

That tone created an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.

“It becomes easier to reach a consensus when you approach one another with candor and civility,” Hamilton said. “I’m not saying ‘easy,’ but easier.”

Of all the items in the “very dangerous array” awaiting the next president, none is more important to Hamilton than U.S. policy on nuclear proliferation: “I think it’s the most consequential issue, not the most likely perhaps, but the most consequential.”

While nuclear arms controls have worked “pretty well over the decades,” producing fewer nations with weapons than was predicted 50 years ago, nuclear technology has continued to spread, including to non-nation entities.

“I’m not suggesting it’s easy to make a bomb, but it isn’t as hard as it was a few decades ago,” Hamilton said. Meanwhile, “the treaties are breaking down. A lot of nations now are thinking about making a bomb, maybe they are making one … I’m very worried about that.”

Sooner or later, a nuclear weapon “is going to get into the hands of a bad guy.” As the 9/11 commissioners emphasized in their report, Hamilton said, “If a bomb goes off in the middle of Manhattan, it will kill 500,000 people. That’s not the injured, that’s killed.”

Hamilton is so intent on this issue, he is “joining the effort to try to build support for abolishing nuclear weapons.”

That effort was articulated last year in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, written by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn, Hamilton said. Like them, he believes, “In the final analysis, that’s the only way we are going to reduce terror.”

Given his 34 years in Congress, and that he has seen enough classified security documents to keep a sane person awake at night, it is heartening to hear Hamilton express hope for political change. Even people who believe Obama is bright and sincere wonder if any human can alter the grim status quo.

“We all struggle with that cynicism,” Hamilton said. But, yes, here in 2008, “I think it can be better, and I think the American people want it to be better.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or