“we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians
[proxies] … to piss in our own cistern….
How do we submit? By not being radical enough.
Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.”
Hillary Clinton’s anemic approach to the subject of political corruption which she has demonstrated in her campaign for the presidency was previously demonstrated during her term as Secretary of State. Her strategic refusal to act effectively against corruption in international affairs, at enormous cost to the country, exactly parallels her promised incremental “pragmatic” response to domestic corruption.
In their Brooklyn debate, recycling the sandbagging April fools “inquisition” of Bernie Sanders by the N.Y. Daily News, Hillary Clinton said: “When asked about a number of foreign policy issues, [Sanders] could not answer about Afghanistan.”
This statement was similar to the ensuing hit-jobs on Sanders published by the Daily News which – like the rest of the mass media that took similar hits at him – “is, after all, owned by one of those evil billionaires Sanders is always screaming about,” in the News’ own words. Like the rest of the mass media, Daily News owner and real estate tycoon Mort Zuckerman has his own reason to publish propaganda against Sanders.
Clinton’s accusation, like that of her supporters in the corporate media, was based entirely on fiction. Sanders had said nothing to the Daily News about Afghanistan. The word nowhere appears in the Daily News’s transcript of its Sanders interview.
The Queen of Chaos has been roundly criticized for her involvement as Secretary of State in Libya, Honduras, Haiti and elsewhere, for generally taking “very little action to bring about peace,” as Jimmy Carter observes. Clinton’s impact on Afghanistan is seldom mentioned in these critiques. When it is mentioned, it is to note her irrelevance: “On the big issues – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel – Clinton is an afterthought,” because foreign policy was, during her term, “micromanaged by the White House.”
But Afghanistan was apparently on Clinton’s guilty mind during the Brooklyn debate. Her false accusation against Sanders warrants taking a closer look, not at Sanders’ views, but at Clinton’s own role in Afghanistan and the war that Clinton helped make the empire’s longest.
While the FBI investigates the broader relationship between Clinton’s email secrecy and the Clinton Foundation‘s global-scale conflicts of interest, Clinton’s experience in Afghanistan sheds valuable light on Clinton’s views toward and executive experience with Sanders’ central issue of political corruption. When faced with that central issue by Sanders, Clinton defended by changing the subject. She asserted that, not political corruption, but “breaking up the banks” is the “core issue” of Sanders’ campaign.
Clinton had previously ridiculed Sanders as a “single issue” candidate while it is obvious that he is actually a Priority Issue candidate, when it comes to speaking about plutocratic corruption. For example, Bernie Sanders told his Daily News inquisitors: “Every item that I am talking about on my agenda is, I believe, supported by the majority of the people in this country. My major job is to mobilize the American people to demand that Congress listen to them and their needs rather than just the big money interests.“
Sanders has consistently acknowledged the high barrier to accomplishment of this “major job.” He says: “Very little is going to be done to transform our economy and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy.” Sanders emphasizes that no president can address the many problems for which Americans demand solutions except by first waging a revolution against “a handful of billionaires” who “are able to buy elections…. That is not democracy that is oligarchy, and together we are going to change that.”
Ending the current corrupt system of politics will require that Sanders rein in the U.S. Supreme Court‘s legalization of political corruption in its series of cases since Buckley v Valeo (1976). This is what clearly constitutes Sanders’ “core issue.” His priority is not breaking up the TBTF banks, which could not be done against their will anyway, so long as Washington remains on their payroll. Until the use of Wall Street money to influence politics is again regulated and banned by laws like those that the Supreme Court decreed to be in violation of freedom of speech, plutocracy will continue to rule. Among other strategies, this will require appointment of progressive new justices. Until then, a corrupt Congress can stop Sanders from achieving the reforms his supporters demand.
Another of Hillary Clinton’s responses to Sanders’ actual “core issue” – that nothing of much importance can be accomplished by any president until democracy is restored — is to claim that this goal is illusory, a fantasy of impractical dreamers. She, by contrast, is pragmatic. Betting against the very possibility of restoring democracy, Clinton suggests that Sanders cannot get his actual core issue, his “major job,” done. Sanders’ priority goal of getting money out of politics is a task which her plutocratic backers would not allow Clinton to perform, even though American voters overwhelmingly support that goal. Dismissing the goal as impractical notwithstanding the consent of the governed, her implicit argument is, therefore, that Clinton could be successful in making piecemeal reforms on issues that are amenable to plutocrats. And she, of course, being part of the plutocracy, is experienced in identifying and achieving just such acceptably “pragmatic” goals. The term “experienced” has become a euphemism for the less attractive term, pragmatism.
It has been some time since a presidential candidate ran on a platform of pragmatism, which is hardly an inspiring message. In an earlier era the term “pragmatic” was used as code by Southern politicians to describe those who would accept Jim Crow rather than insist upon more than symbolic civil rights for black citizens. Clinton may have picked up the term in Arkansas for re-application to the similar historic crisis of this era of plutocracy, when not just African-Americans but the whole 99% have been disenfranchised as democracy has become little more than a set of symbols behind which corruption rules.
In the 1960s “pragmatists” were replaced in Congress by politicians ready to take action necessary to solve the prolonged civil rights crisis left over from the failure of Reconstruction. The biggest pragmatist of them all, Lyndon Johnson, had stolen his election and bribed other politicians for support in the Senate. In Congress he had a 20 year record of being “pragmatic” on civil rights. As Master of the Senate Johnson successfully generalled opposition to the mounting post-war demands for effective civil rights reform. The logjam to reform he created in the Senate broke only after he left. As president, this shape-shifting politician would reverse this role, betraying his life-long southern Jim Crow backers. He supported effective landmark civil rights laws that helped realize the most fully enfranchised democracy in US history. This occasioned the reversal of the two parties’ historic positions on civil rights, and therefore their regional support base. The southern party of slavery and Jim Crow became the northern party of civil rights, and vice versa.
The election of 2016 is a similar moment of historical choice. Sanders describes the choice as one between “a crisis of historical consequence here, and incrementalism.” Sanders knows that political corruption is the paramount issue that, by making politicians unresponsive to the public, will block all but symbolic progress on a range of pending majoritarian issues, whether climate change or breaking up the banks. The question confronting the two parties is which will benefit by voter outrage by freeing itself from the control of plutocrats.
Clinton promises incremental initiatives that will not challenge the rule of plutocrats who fund her campaign and the considerable wealth her family derives from corrupt politics. At the end of the 1950’s Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had similarly allowed enactment of ineffectively incremental “civil rights” laws. Incremental reform did not work to resolve the civil rights crisis then and it will not work now to resolve the historic crisis of money in politics. The equivalent of the sweeping landmark Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s will be required to recover democracy from 21st century plutocrats.
To define the difference between himself and the Clintons, Sanders and others use a euphemism for plutocracy, “the establishment.” Playing the gender card to defend against this term Clinton claims that “Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.”
Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy. (1977/2004) wrote: “The Council on Foreign Relations is a key part of a network of people and institutions usually referred to by friendly observers as ‘the establishment.” Both Bill and Chelsea Clinton are current members of the CFR establishment. While Hillary herself is not a member, she is no doubt influenced by her immediate family’s ties to CFR elites. Bill Clinton promised “two for the price of one” in his own election. There is no reason to believe the twofer offer has expired as he campaigns for Hillary. The Clintons share family ties to “the establishment”’s conduct of U.S. foreign affairs.
Clinton supporters commonly justify support for their establishment candidate by contending that she has greater “experience” than Sanders Clinton attempted to fend off the accusation that she is part of the establishment, by acknowledging Sanders’ greater legislative experience. As if experience in elected office, any more than gender, is a criterion for functioning as an important cog in the machinery of plutocracy, she says: ”He’s been in Congress, he’s been elected to office a lot longer than I have.”
When her supporters claim that they prefer Clinton on the basis of her experience they cannot therefore be referring to her eight years of experience in elective office compared to Sanders’ more than three decades experience, including more years than Clinton in the Senate. Unless being the wife of Bill Clinton counts as experience, which would be a “special” category never before considered a qualification for the presidency but created solely for Hillary Clinton, her supporters must be referring to her experience as Secretary of State during Obama’s first term,
Exploring Hillary Clinton’s experience as Secretary of Sate in the single country of Afghanistan therefore affords a glimpse beneath the superficial understanding that she did occupy a high office and traveled a lot, which must add up to relevant experience. It gets at that more important question of judgment that Sanders’ raises. It also turns out to give a window on her performance concerning the Sanders campaigns’ priority issue of corruption in the context of one of the most important issues of United States’ international relations, the expensive perpetuation of its longest war.
Corruption and Counter-insurgency
Clinton’s foreign relations failure on the issue of corruption has been recounted in Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (2015). The author situates her account within a fascinating personal tale that starts in Afghanistan and ends in Washington as a witness to Clinton’s failure. The personal tale persuades that Chayes may well occupy a unique role as informant.
Chayes first went to Afghanistan in December 2001 on the heels of the fleeing Taliban as a reporter for National Public Radio. She had a background working for the Peace Corps in Morocco, covering the Islamic resistance in Algeria, and studying Medieval Islamic history. As many have before her, Chayes became fascinated with Afghanistan and stayed on. Putting her journalism career on hold, she first operated a development project for a brother of President Hamid Karzai, and later created an artisanal soap project in Kandahar as an economic development entrepreneur. These activities brought Chayes into close quarters with the systemically corrupt Afghan Government overseen by Hamid Karzai, and exploited by his own family among other warlords who were paid, protected, and empowered by the United States.
How the U.S. managed to lose the war in Afghanistan against a rag-tag Taliban insurgency that the U.S. itself generated, and, oh yes, wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars in doing so, has been portrayed in its sadly tragi-comic detail by Anand Gopal’s superb post mortem, No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes (2014). Chayes steps into the story that Gopal recounts about the U.S. military’s endless fiasco in Afghanistan, causing and exacerbating the very problems they were sent to solve. See also Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012 (2014). (describing how ignorant warmongering breeds enemies). Chayes had already glimpsed the same sad story in her previous book on Afghanistan, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (2006).
In her second book, it falls upon Chayes to become an anti-corruption entrepreneur in order to take McChrystal, Petraeus, Mullen and other top brass to school on the rules of how to win a counterinsurgency. Her message was, to put it in her own words, that “kleptocratic governance – acute and systemic public corruption – was fodder for an expanding insurgency…. [C]orruption was driving people to violent revolt in Afghanistan…. At the top of the list of reasons cited by prisoners [of war] for joining the Taliban … was the perception that the Afghan government was ‘irrevocably’ corrupt.” In short, Chayes concludes, “Afghan corruption was manufacturing Taliban.” Thieves 6-7, 152. Three-quarters of Afghans were concerned about corruption by 2006. It thus took the United States five years to construct a government that could justify prolonged military occupation. This poor “governance [was[…. an essential — if not the main — driving factor of the rising Taliban insurgency.” Thomas P. Cavanna, Hubris, Self-Interest, and America’s Failed War in Afghanistan: the Self-Sustaining Overreach (2015) 152.
Chayes describes her “emperor’s new clothes” moment in U.S. military history as “‘Sally the Soap-Maker Gives an Ops Brief.’” This, she writes, “was how I jokingly came to refer to my main presentation.” It fell to the civilian outsider Chayes, with little more background on the subject than her own personal experience of corruption and a journalists’ common sense capacity for sharp observation, along with some lessons gleaned from medieval history, to inform the U.S. military of lessons that they should have learned in Vietnam. As in other failed counterinsurgency efforts on behalf of corrupt governments, winning the fight against the systemic corruption of the Afghan government by effective anti-corruption strategies was a “mission critical” prerequisite to winning the war. Security of any Kabul government from neo-Taliban insurgents could not be won without fixing the corrupt government that the U.S. had largely created. As bigoted, brutal, and benighted as the Taliban were, they had not operated the state for wholesale private gain, compared to the warlord dominated, systemically corrupt Karzai government fostered under the tutelage of the systemically corrupt Bush and Obama governments.
The short-sighted military strategy of dependence by the US on corrupt warlords as a means to defeat the Taliban government had been adopted by the Bush administration, and its satrap Zalmay Khalilzad, as the organizing principle for the Kabul puppet government. This strategy would eventually preclude military victory against ragtag Taliban insurgents who were not supported by any foreign power formally hostile to the United States. They did draw support from the enormous opium trade that had re-emerged under the aegis of the United States.
In her historical studies at Harvard Chayes encountered a body of medieval Islamic “advice literature” she found relevant to this problem. She brings her scholarly knowledge of this literature, including Western examples of the genre, such as Machiavelli, brilliantly to bear on the subject of corruption in Afghanistan. Chayes shows that Western and Islamic advice literature alike tended to describe the problem in Afghanistan that she experienced, as well as explaining the different varieties of corruption experienced elsewhere around the world at different times. Her further excavations into this material revealed the Dutch and militant Protestant anti-corruption concerns at the earliest roots of American democracy. She compares the puritanical features of militant Islam with the militant puritanical Protestantism that informed New England’s settlers. Chayes treats them as common religious responses to systemically corrupt politics. “One of the most striking features of early seventeenth-century [English] government” that many such American colonials were fleeing “is its widespread – and in some respects quite staggering – corruption.” G.E. Aylmer, A Short History of Seventeenth-Century England (1963) 33. Chayes reaches a similar conclusion about the centrality of anti-corruption to American revolutionaries as did Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (2014). See also Gary Hart, The Republic of Conscience (2015).
It is not that religions themselves are inherently fanatical, Chayes argues, but that systemically corrupt governments anywhere can drive people into a stubborn opposition which may borrow its moral framework from the most convenient alternative normative system to that of the state. Often – in Islamic countries as much as in colonial America – that is the religion of the oppressed. And those stubborn religiously-motivated insurgents will borrow their military tactics from any means necessary to fight their existential war against immorality. Often that leads to a choice of tactics that has come to be called by the United States “terrorism” because the war is fought against a whole culture of corruption, not just those military and police elements that defend that culture by violent means.
The long trajectory of Chayes’ analytic arrow, having been released from the Karzais’ corrupt Kandahar, comes ultimately to land in the last few pages of her book on the target of a corrupted U.S. government, as exposed in the financial meltdown of 2008. As Chayes closes her story, one comes to understand how a systemically corrupt US government in the Bush and Obama years not only tolerated, but constructed and sustained, a corrupt Afghan government in its own image, while projecting unjustified blame for corruption on the Afghan culture.
Secretary Clinton was a pivotal agent of that counterproductive strategy.
Chayes’ arrow penetrates to the heart of that reality in the very final words of her book, words that can be applied to both U.S. domestic and foreign policy. “With the [United States] government helping create conditions favoring criminality … [s]omething systemic is wrong…. It is not potential improvements … that we lack. It is clear sightedness about the gravity of the danger we court, and the courage to dare to design them.” Id. 211.
The Washington Angle
In Kabul, Chayes was getting nowhere trying to convince the military to act on this knowledge and its urgency because the US, including most importantly Hillary Clinton’s State Department, lacked the courage to stand up to the U.S.’s own systemically corrupt creature, the Karzai government. Clinton was unable to forge a different strategic path from that of employing corrupt predatory warlords that the Bush administration had originally charted in Afghanistan.
The strategic vacuum at the top eventually sucked Chayes out of Afghanistan in September, 2010, to work in the Pentagon under Michael Mullen, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. Id. 145. Sally the Soap-Maker’s employment in the belly of the Pentagon seems slightly less counter-intuitive since – following an entirely different career path – Chayes’ mother had been a high level official in the Pentagon under Jimmy Carter.
In Chayes’ new capacity as Pentagon adviser on Afghan corruption she soon attended a high level inter-agency meeting to discuss a proposal submitted by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself on the issue of corruption in Afghanistan. This strategy paper was titled “The Clinton Memorandum.”
Chayes had learned two essential lessons from her studies and experience: First, when corruption becomes systemic, reform requires a “whole of government” strategic campaign that goes well beyond mere law enforcement against individual retail offenders. For the U.S. to make any progress with its client state, Chayes insists, “a serious anticorruption campaign has to make use of the plentiful leverage [of the U.S. superpower] …. with foresight and stubborn fortitude.” Id. 45. Second, in such a system the piecemeal approach of trying to isolate reform measures to just one aspect or isolated symptom of corruption deemed important for some extraneous reason will not work. Piecemeal reform can easily cause more harm than good as the system coopts and redeploys such reforms to suit its own purposes.
A campaign against systemic corruption must be expressed from the very top on down, and at the same time be comprehensive in its scope.
What is almost endearing about Chayes’ personal journey in re-learning these lessons, is that they are standard even axiomatic knowledge of anti-corruption specialists. Chayes’s spirited intelligent-amateur approach leads her to reinvention of the same conclusions found in the expert literature, which her book never references. What is not so endearing is that neither the military nor the diplomatic corps had institutionalized, in the form of career anti-corruption experts or dedicated bureaucracies, the knowledge that Chayes almost accidentally brought to their attention. The U.S. had failed to apply that knowledge in Afghanistan for almost a decade by the time Chayes became its default messenger. An outsider might suspect that such institutional negligence could only have been willful, a deliberate defense of a corrupt puppet state. Chayes’ experience at the Pentagon would prove that it was.
The “Clinton Memorandum” Speaks Volumes
This deliberate negligence can be traced directly to Secretary Clinton. Her memo on Afghanistan corruption displayed a studied ignorance of the expert knowledge that Chayes understood to be axiomatic. First, the “Clinton Memo” condoned corruption as a cultural epiphenomenon of no strategic interest to the United States: “Such criminality at the top of government was typical of that part of the world, the analysis judged, and could only be addressed carefully by appealing to Karzai to take appropriate steps.”
In Clinton’s hands corruption became a cultural quirk to be indulged if not deferred to in the manner of identity politics. This view ignores that corruption is pretty much the same everywhere – either capturing government in its grand, wholesale, and intractably systemic form, which clearly described the Karzai government, or presenting a challenge primarily to criminal law enforcement in its more tractable retail, individual, administrative, and petit forms.
Transparency International (TI) agrees with the Clinton Memo that many states in the Middle East and North Africa are corrupt, often as a result of the “resource curse.” Like in Afghanistan, where the resource was primarily opium, corruption makes those states vulnerable to groups like ISIL who acquire arms from the corrupt militaries of these states, and captures as share of their resources. TI recommends that in order to avoid insecurity throughout the region international arms transfers by supplier states, the US being the largest supplier, should be conditioned on “anti-corruption or integrity building efforts.” TI concludes, like Chayes, that “public trust and the state legitimacy it brings—perhaps the most important element of long-term security in any country—is greatly diminished by corruption. Corruption has fuelled political unrest, extremism, and formed a narrative for violent extremist groups.”
While Clinton uses experience in the region with endemic corruption as an excuse for her contrary recommendation of inaction on the problem of corruption, experts on corruption present this region-wide experience as ample evidence of the need for strenuous anti-corruption action. Experts counsel that if U.S. security goals in fighting extremism and unrest were to be achieved in Afghanistan, anti-corruption efforts are essential.
By giving Hamid Karzai – the chairman of the board of nearly the world’s most corrupt government – the responsibility for “taking appropriate steps” for reform by means of “carefully … appealing” to Karzai,” Clinton committed three separate errors in just one phrase. First, to be effective anti-corruption reform must be comprehensive in scope – not just selective “appropriate steps.” Second, it must be delivered in a “big bang” — not “addressed carefully” and timidly. And third, it must be tough, authoritative, and as Chayes said “stubborn” – and certainly not proceed from a subordinate and toothless posture suggested by Clinton’s approach of gently “appealing,” with the symbolic cultural sensitivity of identity politics, to the chief culprits to reform themselves.
Next, Clinton absolves the U.S. enablers of any responsibility for using their vast powers to solve the problem. As Chayes quotes the Clinton memo’s defeatist and wrongheaded conclusion drawn from Clinton’s misguided premises: “We have come to conclude that unless Afghans take the lead in combating corruption, efforts are doomed.” The exact opposite is true. The U.S. military “efforts are doomed” if it leaves anti-corruption efforts for Afghans to “take the lead.” This hopelessly uninformed statement ignores that systemic corruption can never reform itself – it takes an outside force to do that. In Afghanistan that outside force had to be the U.S. pay- and puppet-masters themselves. Or else it would eventually be the extremist Taliban that will bring down the corrupt Kabul government by the indifference of the countries’ own people to the government’s success or failure. After the U.S. tires of spending its own blood and treasure on its Sisyphean strategy of propping up a systemically corrupt government, if will predictably fall.
Clinton’s approach ignored not only expert knowledge but that Senator Barack Obama had campaigned on just the opposite of her own futile approach in a major national security address on August 1, 2007 titled “The War We Need to Win.” Before he became President, Obama understood that to win the war “we must seek better performance from the Afghan government, and support that performance through tough anti-corruption safeguards on aid.” This brief policy statement showed that Obama understood this fundamental rule of anti-corruption work before he was President. Obama understood that the US enablers of corruption in the Bush administration needed to be replaced by a policy of getting tough on Afghan corruption. He therefore understood the need to use the aid budget controlled by Clinton’s State Department as a tool for the “tough anti-corruption” performance that Chayes also understood to be essential for winning “The War We Need to Win.”
At the highest level it was understood, then, that, by not imposing such aid conditionality and instead, through careful, mild entreaty, leaving anti-corruption reform up to the Afghan government which was itself the source of corruption, the problem would not be addressed.
The Clinton Memo thus directly contradicted not only all expert knowledge but also the policy on which Obama had campaigned for the presidency. Obama’s Afghanistan address was part of a broader platform that promised the American people that he would essentially be smarter than Bush, on this issue as with everything else. He had rendered his verdict on neocon aggression against Iraq as a “dumb war.” The “conditionality” policy he advocated for Afghan corruption was well understood and advocated by experts in anti-corruption work. It was smart, based on such experience as the British in Hong Kong, LaGuardia and FDR in New York City, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and a variety of other successful corruption turnaround efforts. Obama demonstrated as a campaigner that he was smart enough to know, and he said it, that reform of systemic corruption must come from the top, by use of tough controls by the U.S.
But Clinton advocated and pursued just the opposite policy than the one Obama promised. “What really mattered, [Clinton’s memo] opined, was what bothered ordinary Afghans the most: ‘predatory corruption’ on the local level.” Id. 145-46. She misuses the technical term “predatory” to characterize small time retail operators, the little fish, as if they were just independent entrepreneurs. The definition of “predatory” in the literature of the time was the opposite of Clinton’s usage: “Combating predatory grand corruption, in contrast [to “petty” or retail corruption], requires concerted action at the national and the international level.”
Whether or not Clinton’s statement, which is vaguely insulting to Afghans, accurately assessed “what bothered ordinary Afghans” who were not insurgents, what really did matter to the U.S. military and the taxpayers who fund it were the insurgent Afghans they had to deal with to guarantee that a failing state would not be used as a base for terrorist attacks. Those insurgents, the neo-Taliban, were very clearly trying to topple the systemically corrupt Kabul government – not just some individual small fry agents of that government carrying on petty retail corruption at the local level.
Clinton’s faulty analysis, which was both mistargeted and likely wrong if not insulting, advocated a piecemeal approach that addressed mere symptoms while misusing terminology that instructed just the opposite. It misunderstood who her client was at the same time it almost certainly misstated that “ordinary Afghans” were tolerant of the world-record level of systemic corruption at the top of their government and were so blind as to only be concerned about its symptoms in the predations of retail participants.
Most important, Clinton fatally violated the axiom that a counterinsurgency cannot be won on behalf of a systemically corrupt government. This fundamental mistake cannot be attributed to Clinton’s ignorance, since Obama understood it when campaigning against Clinton before appointing her. Moreover, anti-corruption work “in the developing world was an important focus during Hillary’s tenure” at State, which she demonstrated by issuing statements on corruption and addressing international forums on the subject. Schweizer, Clinton Cash 177-84.
Ignorance is therefore not a credible excuse for the Clinton Memo’s grant of a free pass to Afghan corruption based on her flawed analysis that contradicted anti-corruption expertise. As Chayes summarizes: “Most significantly, the memo entirely ignored the structured, vertically integrated nature of the corruption networks that had taken over the Afghan government. … [E]fforts to address [“predatory corruption” i.e., in this context, “petty corruption”] would inevitably lead to confrontations with Karzai. There was no way to isolate measures to confront ‘predatory corruption’ [sic] from Kabul politics. Any plan based on such a faulty analysis would never work.”
Chayes articulates here one of the fundamental lessons taught by anti-corruption research, that systemic corruption cannot be improved by piecemeal reform efforts, which in Clinton’s case took the form of addressing systemic corruption as if it were merely individual and retail on the part of petty small-fry “predators.” Since it was understood by the Obama administration that the problem of systemic corruption was a key factor in the outcome of “The War We Need to Win,” Clinton’s pro-corruption policy can only be understood as directly and deliberately responsible for losing the war. Clinton’s plan was so fundamentally faulty that the only alternative to judging her action as being deliberate would be judge her as extremely incompetent.
Like her domestic anti-corruption proposals, there is no evidence that Clinton cared whether her Memo would bring recognized anti-corruption knowledge to bear on the problem of systemic corruption. She seemed to just invent some unsupported notions that would justify her intention to apply no more than window dressing to the problem. Chayes, the amateur anti-corruption adviser with none of the anti-corruption expertise and resources available to Clinton, understood; but Clinton did not. Her family business likely inured her to systemically corrupt politics as just a normal feature of government to be addressed solely with lip service reforms that operated at the lowest level, but left the kingpins in charge. She was either blind to, or so much a part of, the systemic corruption, that like the sensibility of fish to water in the sea, it was simply the medium in which her family swims.
Acceptance of corruption as normal – just the system, as it has become in US politics since 1976 — denied high level US operatives like Clinton the capacity to see, or perhaps care about, the known connection between systemic corruption and insurgency, and therefore between anti-corruption and counter-insurgency. This blindness of participants in the US system of corruption to a foreign government drowning in a sea of corruption foreclosed achievement of whatever expensive military and foreign policy goals the U.S might have legitimately had in Afghanistan that did not involve enriching warlords and other participants in the creation and operation of a narco-state. Tolerance for the same systemic corruption in the United States similarly forecloses any domestic policy goals that do not serve the plutocracy. As put by one trenchant critic of “the living avatar of pay to play politics. She shouldn’t be the Democratic nominee for president because she doesn’t even know it’s wrong.” In their world, the Clintons get rich off the American public and the public continues electing them to office where they can continue their influence peddling. If the people consent, it can’t be wrong.
The State Department’s abundant resources including the USAID budget which Clinton had famously brought under her personal control gave her access to expertise and instrumentalities capable of addressing governance issues, including essential anti-corruption programs. Clinton’s Memo demonstrated that she did not acknowledge the first thing about what the experts, candidate Obama, and Sarah Chayes’ informed experience all taught was needed for a successful counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.
Stranger still, given the normal inter-agency jockeying for budgets and power, was that the Clinton State Department chose to shunt off to the military, and therefore ultimately to the CIA, the responsibility for anti-corruption policy. Since the CIA, along with Bush’s proconsul Zalmay Khalilzad, had organized the corrupt Karzai government and had retained many of the corrupt actors on its own payroll, including Karzai, they had no interest in losing their assets by pursuing an anti-corruption campaign against them. The U.S. Empire does not colonize, it corrupts.
The CIA was therefore not about to reconsider its strategy for controlling a government by paying it off. Chayes personally observed how the CIA was allowed to attend confidential anti-corruption meetings in Kabul as spies working on behalf of their corrupt Afghan assets so as to undermine enforcement programs and protect corrupt CIA targets discussed at those meetings. Instead of correcting this error and excluding the CIA by taking charge of anti-corruption work, Clinton blamed the corruption on the Afghan puppets who were being paid by the CIA to manage a corrupt system essentially created and owned by the CIA.
Chayes observes “it was odd to see the State Department hand off to the military a problem that so obviously fell in its own lane. The U.S. civilian leadership was shirking its responsibility to develop a high level strategic approach to the most significant political and diplomatic challenge of this conflict.” The chief shirker was Clinton, who effectively washed her hands of the problem with her Memo, and thereby determined that U.S. policy would necessarily fail in Afghanistan. The foxes would guard the chicken coop while the Taliban, as a result, would be able to recruit many more fox hunters. Chayes muses, “What is it, I found myself wondering, that keeps a country as powerful as the United States from employing the vast and varied nonmilitary leverage at its disposal?” 146-47. Corruption cannot be solved on the battlefield; so if one rules out incompetence and ignorance there is only one answer to Chayes’ query. Afghanistan was just one of the more raw outposts in an Empire of Corruption.
Eventually, an “interagency document called ‘Objective 2015’” formalized the whole government’s acceptance of Clinton’s approach for perpetuating corruption in Afghanistan. It wrongly marginalized anti-corruption as just a warm and fuzzy goal for idealists, but – contrary to all expert knowledge – not one “essential to mission success.” 153. Putting an end to Chayes’ efforts, “buried deep in an interagency document – a few words of guidance to DoJ attorneys – the U.S. decision to turn a blind eye to Afghan corruption was finally spelled out.” Attorney General Holder, the great protector of systemic Wall Street corruption, would issue a formal directive that actually “barred DoJ attorneys from mentoring anticorruption cases” in Kabul, 154, much as he foreclosed criminal anti-corruption charges against Wall Street executives.
Clinton and corruption had won the battle over fundamental counter-insurgency strategy. By assuring impunity for a corrupt Afghan government ruling under the aegis of the United States, Secretary Clinton guaranteed alienation of ordinary Afghans who are troubled by corruption, and the other crimes for which they hold the U.S. responsible. This alienation guarantees the ultimate defeat of the United States’ military objectives in Afghanistan, with the attendant enormous waste of resources and lives, both U.S. and Afghan.
The Clinton Experience
The temporary fall of Kunduz in late 2015, the appearance of ISIS on the Afghan scene, truck bombs in central Kabul all demonstrate the consequence of the US leaving behind a negative attitude among Afghan citizens toward a systemically corrupt Kabul government. The negative impact of Clinton’s tolerance for corruption endures even a year and a half after control was transferred into the more capable, if uncoordinated, hands of its national unity coalition leadership negotiated by John Kerry.
Chayes reports that she has no doubt that “the Taliban successes in and around Kunduz are the almost inevitable consequence of corrupt and abusive governance…. I’m afraid I don’t see how the U.S. can helpfully respond in Afghanistan, at this point. We had more than a decade, and we squandered a remarkable moment in history.” Under the foreign policy leadership of Obama and Clinton, which was supposed to be different than Bush’s, the United States had completed the Bush failure of throwing away blood and money to create new enemies out of potential friends.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has investigated how the U.S. taxpayer, one way or the other has furnished much of the stolen and squandered booty in Afghanistan. John Sopko, as head of SIGAR did a commendable job of exposing waste and corruption in Afghanistan. He prosecuted some of the losses to the U.S. from that corruption. But he could not, with his limited tools and Clinton’s support for corruption, overcome the U.S. government’s lack of commitment to preventing corruption. Sopko, speaking with institutional authority as well as insight on the subject, emphasizes that corruption and the closely related problem of narcotics are – contrary to the Clinton Memo, but in agreement with Sarah Chayes — “mission critical” factors jeopardizing all U.S. goals in Afghanistan.
Janine Wedel worked in the international branch of what she calls the “anti-corruption industry,” for the World Bank. Her book is a cri d’cour against a set of that industry’s “assumptions … that corruption afflicts the Other, not us; … corruption is nearly synonymous with bribery,” and other neoliberal perspectives. Like Clinton’s, these assumptions focus exclusively on retail corruption from which “the new [systemic] corruption and the massive unaccountability inherent in it were excluded.” Wedel’s book shows that these “approaches of the anti-corruption industry diverge a full 180 degrees from the realities of the new [systemic] corruption with its built-in unaccountability.” 87
Wedel’s analysis supports Chayes and Sopko’s critique of what Clinton failed to grasp about Afghanistan. This is an analysis that Chayes and Wedel also apply to the United States, and which makes the proposed anti-corruption reforms of both Clinton and the domestic “anti-corruption industry” of supporting professional activists hopelessly inadequate to the challenge the United States now faces: that the systemic corruption which now afflicts the United States, indeed in which the Clintons are themselves adepts, is mission critical here as much as it was in Afghanistan.
The American voter is beginning a revolt against the corrupt politics of catch-me-if-you-can operators like the Clintons. Chayes’ book concludes that, in Afghanistan: “If the obstacle preventing more meaningful action against abusive corruption wasn’t active U.S. complicity, it sure looked like it.” 147. What Clinton offers Democratic primary voters is continued apparent complicity in corruption both at home and abroad. She can be expected to offer “pragmatic” window dressing for continued systemic corruption of the United States under the supervision of a restored U.S. Supreme Court majority which grants impunity to corrupt politicians and plutocrats, just like Clinton granted impunity to the corrupt Afghan warlords.*
* This article is excerpted from the eLibrary draft of the author’s book, Hillary Clinton’s Dark Money Disclosure “Pillar,” available online.