Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent attack ad has struck a chord. The ad depicts a 3 am phone call to the White House, presumably informing the president of a crisis. An announcer intones with great solemnity, “Something is happening in the world.” We next see refreshed Clinton wearing a brown pants suit and talking calmly on the phone.
Super Tuesday exit polling showed that voters who made up their mind in the last two days before the election voted largely in favor of Clinton. This result indicates that the 3:00 a.m. phone call ad had worked its fearful magic. It sowed serious doubts about Barack Obama’s fitness to manage a crisis. It is highly possible that the election will turn on this very issue.
But how likely is such a scenario? Will the White House phone suddenly ring in the wee hours and awaken the next president to a crisis that requires an immediate decision? Such calls do occur, but not in the way that Clinton misleadingly portrays them.
Most likely, the call would come from the secretary of state or the national security adviser, who counsels the president on security matters. Normally, one of these two individuals decides whether to wake the president. If Senator Clinton is truly serious about establishing her national security credentials, she ought to focus on who she would choose for these key positions. So far, she has been silent on the subject.
Clinton’s foreign-policy advisers include Madeline Albright, Sandy Berger, and Martin Indyk. This suggests a reliance on much of the same team that served her husband. Ironically, they seemed to experience difficulty reaching a decision quickly, if the conflicts in Rwanda and Yugoslavia are any guide. Conversely, Obama has enlisted the support of Clinton Middle East specialists who were the strongest supporters of the peace process. Senator Clinton should explain why she accepts advice from individuals who waffled in time of crisis.
In October 1973 there was a real crisis: Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, which began the Yom Kippur War. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger chose instead to let President Richard Nixon sleep to prevent him from interfering. During the height of the crisis, Britain’s Prime Minister called the White House. But Kissinger refused to put Nixon on the line because he was drunk (as was often the case). It was 8:30 pm. Despite the current mud slinging, no one suggests that any of the major candidates suffers from a drinking problem.
In August 1981, US F-14s shot down two Libyan jets over the Mediterranean. Presidential counselor Ed Meese learned of the incident at 11:03 pm. But Meese delayed until 4:23 am to inform Ronald Reagan. The President said “good job” then went back to sleep. What does Clinton suggest he should have done differently?
On October 22, 1983, National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane awoke Reagan at 2 am to notify him that a Marxist group had engineered a coup d’état on the Caribbean island of Grenada. However, members of Reagan’s staff had already met to devise strategy. Reagan responded by authorizing a US invasion that began two days later.
The next night, October 23, McFarlane awoke the president about 2:30 am. He told him that terrorists had destroyed a US Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen—the deadliest attack on US service men overseas since WWII. Reagan authorized a few shellings, but that was the extent of US retaliation. He waited over three months before ordering a withdrawal of US forces. Senator Clinton should note that Reagan took quick action on the easy one—invading a small island—and took months to act on the true crisis.
Today, as US soldiers are killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, what would happen if US soldiers were killed in a massive attack? Would President Hillary Clinton authorize a ground attack in response? That move would require many more US troops, a policy similar to the so-called “surge,” which she has rejected out of hand. Calling for a stepped up withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is in fact more dovish than what a President Obama would do. He has promised to use military force to protect US troops in Iraq, a point that Clinton has criticized.
It is unlikely that a crisis might occur today that would require to a president to make a snap decision while most of the country sleeps. Perhaps a terrorist attack on US soil, but much time would pass before the president knew who did it. And if Al-Qaeda staged a follow up to September 11, where would the US strike and when? American forces are already stretched thin and are close to breaking.
The fundamental question is not what the president will or will not say at 3 am. The real question is: will the next president craft a national security policy that makes it less, not more, likely that such a call will actually come? The answer is to choose a president who possesses the intelligence, integrity, and judgment to resist making rash decisions and to avoid creating crises where none exist.