Criticizing Sen. Hillary Clinton over her possible appointment as secretary of state, in three separate appearances, Christopher Hitchens purported to quote Clinton from 15 years ago to attack her foreign policy credentials. On MSNBC and CNN, from November 17-19, Hitchens claimed that Clinton directed her husband in 1993 not to intervene in the Balkans because it would detract attention from her health-care program. But the source he has previously cited for the assertion does not support it.
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Contemplating the possible nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, commentator and author Christopher Hitchens, a frequent and harsh Clinton critic, revived the unsubstantiated claim that Hillary Clinton blocked any action by the Clinton administration in war-torn Bosnia in 1993 because she didn't want it to interfere with passage of her health-care plan. In reviving the claim on MSNBC's Hardball, MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and CNN's Larry King Live between November 17 and November 19, Hitchens purported to quote Hillary Clinton demanding of Bill Clinton that he not intervene in Bosnia, lest, in Hitchens' words on the November 17 Hardball, it "spoil my wonderful health-care plan, which should be front and center." In a March 31 article for Slate.com, Hitchens cited Sally Bedell Smith's For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years for the claim that Hillary Clinton blocked Clinton administration intervention in Bosnia, but the book does not support Hitchens' claim; it does not mention Hitchens' purported quote or otherwise assert that Hillary Clinton directed Bill Clinton not to take action in Bosnia.
On all three shows, Hitchens also revived his claim that then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin was a strong proponent of U.S. intervention in Bosnia but was thwarted by Hillary Clinton. In his Slate article, as purported further support for his claim that Hillary Clinton blocked action in Bosnia to protect her domestic priority, Hitchens cited an exchange he said he had with Aspin that does not, in fact, prove his broader claim about Hillary Clinton. Moreover, in her book, On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency (Simon & Schuster, 1994), author Elizabeth Drew, a former Washington correspondent with The New Yorker, writes that, contrary to media reports at the time, Aspin was not a proponent of U.S. intervention in Bosnia.
In his Slate article, Hitchens quoted at length from Bedell Smith's book, which includes numerous other errors and flaws, to advance the claim that Hillary Clinton deterred President Clinton from intervening in Bosnia because it would "distract attention from the first lady's health care 'initiative.' " However, neither the quote Hitchens cited from Bedell Smith -- nor the Newsweek article that she referenced -- supports Hitchens' claims.
In For Love of Politics, Bedell Smith wrote:
Taking the advice of [then-Vice President] Al Gore and National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Bill agreed to a proposal to bomb Serbian military positions while helping the Muslims acquire weapons to defend themselves -- the fulfillment of a pledge he had made during the 1992 campaign. But instead of pushing European leaders to sign on, he directed Secretary of State Warren Christopher merely to consult with them. When they balked at the plan, Bill quickly retreated, creating a "perception of drift." The key factor in Bill's policy reversal was Hillary, who was said to have "deep misgivings," and viewed the situation as "a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform." The United States took no further action in Bosnia, and the "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs was to continue for two more years, resulting in the deaths of more than 250,000 people.
In asserting that Hillary Clinton "was said to have 'deep misgivings,' and viewed the situation as 'a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform,' " Bedell Smith did not purport to quote Hillary Clinton directly and did not assert that she directed her husband to do or not do anything with respect to Bosnia, as Hitchens has repeatedly claimed.
Moreover, Bedell Smith cites a 1993 Newsweek article by Tom Post for her claim that Hillary Clinton "was said to have 'deep misgivings,' and viewed the situation as 'a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform.' " But Post did not report that as fact; rather, in the article Bedell Smith cited, he reported that sources gave differing accounts of the influences on Bill Clinton's Bosnia policy, providing one point of view offered by adviser Mandy Grunwald, but then citing "other sources" saying that Hillary Clinton had "deep misgivings" about Bosnia, and quoting a "friend" saying: "She regards this as a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform." Moreover, the Newsweek article does not support Bedell Smith's flat assertion that Hillary was "[t]he key factor in Bill's policy reversal" on Bosnia, and Bedell Smith provides no other support for the assertion.
From the Newsweek article:
By the time Christopher returned to Washington, the mood was grim. His aides had warned him of a weakening of resolve in the White House. Could it be that political consultants had gotten to the president and warned him to back off Bosnia? "We don't mess around with foreign-policy decisions," insists Mandy Grunwald, an informal adviser. "Nobody is saying, 'You've got an economic program to worry about, don't do this'." But other sources say the most important adviser of all-Hillary Rodham Clinton-has deep misgivings. "She regards this as a Vietnam that would compromise health-care reform," says a friend.
After quoting from Bedell Smith's book, Hitchens wrote in his Slate article:
I can personally witness to the truth of this, too. I can remember, first, one of the Clintons' closest personal advisers -- Sidney Blumenthal -- referring with acid contempt to Warren Christopher as "a blend of Pontius Pilate with Ichabod Crane." I can remember, second, a meeting with Clinton's then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin at the British Embassy. When I challenged him on the sellout of the Bosnians, he drew me aside and told me that he had asked the White House for permission to land his own plane at Sarajevo airport, if only as a gesture of reassurance that the United States had not forgotten its commitments. The response from the happy couple was unambiguous: He was to do no such thing, lest it distract attention from the first lady's health care "initiative."
Hitchens did not explain how the anecdote he attributes to Aspin about being told not to land his plane in Sarajevo "lest it distract attention from the first lady's health care 'initiative' " proves the truth of Bedell Smith's claim that it was Hillary's purported "misgivings" that served as "[t]he key factor" in the delay of U.S. intervention in Bosnia.
Moreover, in his three television appearances on November 17, 18, and 19, Hitchens presented Aspin as a strong proponent of U.S. intervention in Bosnia, up against Hillary Clinton. For example, on November 18, Hitchens said:
HITCHENS: We all remember, or we should, that when Les Aspin had then got the Clinton administration very nearly to do something about the horror in the Balkans that belatedly the Clinton administration did decide to stop -- the Clinton-Gore administration -- they delayed it because Hillary said, "No, no, don't do it, it will take away attention from my brilliant, wonderful health care program" that we all remember so well.
But in her book, Drew reported the opposite -- that Aspin "was for doing as little as possible in Bosnia." From Drew's book:
Contrary to many published reports at the time, Aspin (who was said to favor bombing) was for doing as little as possible in Bosnia. He thought it was "a loser from the start," that there was no way to deal with the problem effectively without enormous military force, and that neither the United States nor Europe was willing to pay that price. He argued that the best they could end up with was a divided Bosnia -- Serb, Croat, and Muslim -- with the Serbs maintaining control over most of the land they had already won in the war. When the question of bombing Bosnian Serb artillery sites arose in the spring of 1993, Aspin favored a cease-fire in place. [Page 142]
From the November 17 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): Well, I probably disagree with Hitchens on this, but I am very suspicious when [Sen.] Jon Kyl [R-AZ], a major supporter of the war in Iraq, a complete hawk, a neocon in many ways, complete hawk, supports her for this. Henry Kissinger's come out of the woodwork. He supports her for this.
MATTHEWS: Why do these establishment conservatives want her? What are they up to? Why do they want her? I don't know what they want.
HITCHENS: Don't compare Kissinger -- don't compare Kissinger to Kyl. I mean, Kissinger is a critic of the war and a so-called realist, and someone who likes leaving dictators like Saddam Hussein in place --
MATTHEWS: Well, why do they both want her? They're both Republicans. Why do they want her?
HITCHENS: Because she's a status-quo type, and they know they can, so to speak, trust her. She's a member of their club. Just to comment on what Peter said a moment ago: If you remember -- and I'll drag you back to this Bosnia farce that she inflicted on us during the campaign. Actually, when there was pressure on the Clinton administration -- Les Aspin was secretary of defense, you remember -- to do something about Sarajevo, to stop the killing, to prevent the ethnic cleansing, Hillary Clinton moved in hard on her husband and said, "Don't you do a thing about Bosnia. It'll spoil my wonderful health-care plan, which should be front and center." And remember how beautifully that worked out, too.
PETER BEINART (The New Republic editor-at-large and Time contributor): I'm not sure I think that's an entirely accurate accounting of --
HITCHENS: Yes, it is.
BEINART: -- her role in Bosnia. And the reality is that the Clintons, albeit very late, the Clinton administration acted very well --
BEINART: -- in Bosnia in 1995.
HITCHENS: Over her objections.
BEINART: I'm not sure it was over her objections.
HITCHENS: Yes, it was.
From the November 18 edition of MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with David Gregory:
GREGORY: And what's the impact on a Secretary of State Clinton because of those associations? Can they not put up a firewall between them?
HITCHENS: Well, as I say, if it hadn't involved her, too, the campaign finance scandals -- we're not talking about the ongoing stuff -- Mr. Clinton's huge speaking fees in the Gulf and elsewhere -- we're talking about previous convictions in the Clinton fundraising scandal. If it wasn't for the fact that she couldn't refuse her brothers everything -- or sorry, anything -- couldn't refuse them anything; anything they wanted they seem to have got, including some kind of deal for Marc Rich -- all of this might be forgivable or it might assume a different proportion, David, if it wasn't for the fact that this woman doesn't really have any foreign policy experience worth mentioning.
And what is memorable about it is pretty bad. We all remember, or we should, that when Les Aspin had then got the Clinton administration very nearly to do something about the horror in the Balkans that belatedly the Clinton administration did decide to stop -- the Clinton-Gore administration -- they delayed it because Hillary said, "No, no, don't do it, it will take away attention from my brilliant, wonderful health care program" that we all remember so well. At least on health care, she knows enough about the subject to have really changed American health care for the worse in her time. But foreign policy, she --
GREGORY: And yet --
HITCHENS: About foreign policy, she doesn't even know that much.
From the November 19 edition of CNN's Larry King Live:
LARRY KING (host): Christopher, if she takes the job, does that end her presidential ambitions?
HITCHENS: No. I mean, I actually agree with what Tom Friedman said. It must be very nerve-racking if you're a president to have a secretary of state who you know is thinking about four years ahead or maybe eight all the time. She never thinks about anything else, never has thought about anything else, except the possibility that she might one day be president of the United States. Wasn't even a team player in her own husband's administration.
Remember, when Les Aspin wanted to do something finally about Sarajevo and the rape of Bosnia, Hillary Clinton said, "No, I don't want you intervening. You'll get in the way of my health-care plan," which you remember worked out so brilliantly. Someone who simply cannot think about anything but her own ego, or sometimes, her husband's, but who -- if Barack Obama does this to himself, he'll never have a minute's peace in foreign policy --
KING: Paul [Begala] --
HITCHENS: -- and neither will we. And every lobbyist and foreign policy interest group from China to Indonesia will be laughing --
KING: Paul, what do you make of that?
HITCHENS: -- because they've got exactly the person they know listens to them.