In his convention speech Tuesday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie roused the Republican delegates with a bill of indictment against Hillary Clinton’s record and character as the nation’s top diplomat. He was clearly staking his bid for a Cabinet post in the Trump administration, but his reading seemed more like an audition for the role of Reverend Parris in a summer-stock production of The Crucible.
“Lock her up!” “Burn the witch at the stake!” roared the crowds that night, as they had the night before, and Christie fit right in.
But let’s examine his monologue in a way that no one else, least of all Christie, has done: as a serious, substantive list of charges. In this light, he wouldn’t make it as an assistant district attorney in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, much less as attorney general of the United States.
Christie began with Libya, a weak spot for the Democratic contender. The U.S. intervention in that country’s civil war, with the resulting ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, did turn out disastrously, and, as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was the Obama administration’s most avid advocate of supporting the rebels militarily. But it’s over-the-top to pronounce her “guilty,” as Christie did, “for ruining Libya and creating a nest for terrorist activity.”
For one thing, Clinton was far from alone in pushing for armed intervention. Christie didn’t mention this (and I doubt anyone else will this week), but Donald Trump also favored U.S. military action, saying, “If you don’t get rid of Qaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country.” Recall the context: The besieged Qaddafi was threatening to exterminate tens of thousands of his own citizens; the Arab League, in a near-unprecedented move, unanimously beseeched the United States for help; NATO expressed eagerness to dive in; and the U.N. Security Council drafted a resolution.
Obama agreed (yes, with a push from Clinton and National Security Adviser Susan Rice) to send in U.S. air power but only if the European allies, who had more stake in the conflict, restored order and cleaned up afterward. The leaders of France and Italy agreed. The first part of the operation succeeded. The problem was that France and Italy proved unable or unwilling to do their parts in the “post-combat phase.” As a result, the place fell apart, and terrorists moved in to fill the vacuum. But is Libya worse off than it would have been had Qaddafi remained in power? Unclear. Regardless of the answer, is Hillary Clinton to blame for the ensuing anarchy? Marginally, at most.
At least a real debate could be had about Libya. (Not that Christie contributed to one.) The rest of his speech was flooded with falsehoods.
“In Nigeria,” Christie told the crowd, “Hillary Clinton amazingly fought for two years to keep an al-Qaida affiliate off of the terrorist watch list,” and, “as a result of this reckless action by the candidate who is the self-proclaimed champion of women all around the world,” the terrorists abducted hundreds of schoolgirls.
The truth is the Nigerian government, a U.S. ally, strenuously opposed efforts to put Boko Haram—the al-Qaida affiliate—on the watch list, arguing that doing so would elevate the group’s stature. A letter to Secretary of State Clinton, signed by 25 Africa specialists, including the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria under President George W. Bush, urged her not to place the group on the watch list. Doing so, the letter stated, “would internationalize Boko Haram, legitimize abuses by Nigeria’s security services, limit the State Department’s latitude in shaping a long-term strategy, and undermine the U.S. government’s ability to receive effective independent analysis from the region.” There was an internal debate over the matter, but the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau took the Nigerian government’s side.
Even so, in June 2012, Clinton put the three alleged leaders of Boko Haram on the terrorist watch list—which sparked a process leading to the designation of the entire group in 2013, not long after she left government service. In any case, there is no evidence that putting Boko Haram on the watch list earlier would have prevented the abductions.
Christie then moved on to China, claiming that Clinton “praised the Chinese government for buying our debt to finance Barack Obama’s bloated stimulus plan.” Quite apart from the issue of whether the stimulus plan was bloated, this is how debt-financing works, and this particular feature of Chinese-American relations long precedes—and will long follow—Clinton’s tenure as secretary.
Then came Syria where, according to Christie, Clinton lauded President Bashar al-Assad as “a different kind of leader” and “reformer.” Now, Christie added, there are “400,000 dead at the hands of the man that Hillary defended,” betraying herself as “an awful judge of the character of a dictator and butcher.”
Again, Christie distorted the facts. In March 2011, Assad started arresting protesters who were inspired by the Arab Spring. On CBS’ Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer asked Clinton why the U.S. wasn’t sending in airstrikes, as it had in Libya. After all, Assad’s father had “killed 25,000 people at a lick” in similar circumstances 30 years earlier. Clinton replied (emphasis mine):
Well, if there were a coalition of the international community … the passage of a Security Council resolution … a call by the Arab League … but that’s not going to happen because I don’t think that it’s yet clear what will occur, what will unfold. There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.
Two things are worth highlighting. First, Clinton said no one knew how the Syrian protests or Assad’s crackdown would unfold, so talk of airstrikes was premature. Second, she didn’t say that Assad was “a different kind of leader” but rather “a different leader” from his father. (Which was true at the time: He hadn’t yet approached, much less surpassed, Hafez al-Assad in brutality.) Third, she didn’t call Assad a reformer; rather, she quoted members of a bipartisan congressional delegation as calling him a possible reformer.
She was a little off in this assessment. As PolitiFact found in its research, the Democrats on the trip to Syria (including the inveterate optimist then–Sen. John Kerry) came back hopeful about Assad’s leadership; the Republicans were more skeptical. Still, Bashar was Western-educated, seemed to be more civilized than his father; he hadn’t yet revealed his true colors or maybe even decided what they were. Hope was in the air, though it turned out to be illusory. But it’s going way too far to say Hillary Clinton called Assad a reformer.
Then Christie came to his party’s bête noir—the nuclear deal with Iran, which he called “the worst nuclear deal in history … a deal that will lead to a nuclear Iran and an Israel that will be less safe,” a deal that has already made America “less safe and less respected.” This is the season’s big lie since, in fact, the deal has proved successful: Iran has dismantled the vast bulk of its centrifuges, unloaded its enriched uranium, and let in cameras and inspectors, just as the deal mandated. Iran is much farther away from a nuclear bomb and Israel much safer, as a result. (Recent reports of a “secret side-deal” are neither new, secret, nor invalidating of this assessment.)
But the relevant point, in this context, is that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal. She helped set up the sanctions against Iran, which, some believe, played a role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. But it’s not true that she “launched the negotiations,” as Christie put it, nor that she “helped cut” the deal. The talks didn’t begin until after she left the State Department; her successor, John Kerry, ran the talks from start to finish. If this were a trial, any judge would dismiss this count out of hand.
Christie then denounced Clinton for her “reset” policy in Russia, which he claimed “deleted in four years the safety and security it took us to build in 40 years.” Here, Christie was treading on shaky ground, given Trump’s outspoken admiration of Vladimir Putin and his desire to restore U.S.–Russian relations—his own “reset,” plus some.
But Christie was not just impolitic: He was also wrong. For as long as Dmitry Medvedev was Russian president, the reset policy accomplished quite a bit. Washington and Moscow signed the New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty, cooperated in measures to counter terrorism and nuclear proliferation. At Obama’s request, Medvedev even canceled a contract to sell advanced air-defense missiles to Iran, at a considerable financial loss, because the missiles would have made it harder for the United States or Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear reactors if the showdown with Tehran had come to that. All this went up in smoke with the re-emergence of Putin and his nostalgia for the days of empire. Even so, it’s nutty to say that these renewed tensions, whatever their cause, have “deleted” the gains yielded by 40 years of U.S. security policy.
While he was on the subject of Communist leaders, Christie then claimed Clinton “supported concessions to the Castro brothers” by “ending the embargo” against Cuba while getting “almost nothing in return.” Again, Christie is confused by chronology: The diplomatic gambit to reopen relations with Cuba took place well after Clinton left the State Department. And, in any case, the embargo has not been lifted.
Finally, Christie brought up Clinton’s emails, saying that she “cared more about protecting her own secrets than … protecting America’s secrets” and that “her selfish, awful judgment” made “our secrets vulnerable.” I have already been over this overhyped issue in some detail. Suffice it to say that neither FBI Director James Comey nor any other investigator found the slightest evidence that her email led to the improper disclosure of any secrets. Even the missives containing Top Secret material—all eight of them, only one of which she sent—dealt with matters known to the entire world (CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen) or not terribly important (a conversation with the president of Malawi).
Christie concluded his speech, as if addressing a jury of her peers, “Time after time, the facts and just the facts lead you to the same verdict. … In Libya, Nigeria: guilty. In China and Syria … ”
The crowd screamed, “Guilty!”
“In Iran and Russia and Cuba … ”
“Guilty!” they roared again.
“And here at home, for risking America’s secrets to keep her own and lying to cover it all up … ”
Chris Christie had taken the stage 20 minutes earlier with the end of his political career in sight, panting into the final months of his final term as New Jersey governor, saddled with unspeakably low ratings, denied his dream of a spot on the ticket with Trump after months of a lapdog’s humiliation. He mustered his case for the candidate nonetheless, on an issue about which he knows next to nothing, and incited the mob passion despite his placement on the schedule just before 10 p.m. That is, just before the three networks started covering the proceedings, a prime time that Trump had allotted to his least-known son and Ben Carson—Carson, of all Trump’s discarded rivals!—who wound up straying off-script to denounce Hillary Clinton as a disciple of Lucifer, outdoing even Christie’s gamest efforts at pandering.
If Trump is elected president, he might nominate Christie to be his attorney general. If Clinton is elected, we may never hear of Chris Christie again. As Christie said, at one point in his speech, “You’re the ones who will decide.”