The extraordinary exchange of letters between Sen. Hillary Clinton and the undersecretary of defense for policy may turn out to be a signal event in the congressional debate over the Iraq war—and possibly in the 2008 presidential election.
The undersecretary's letter to Clinton embodies the administration's contempt for Congress, Democrats, anyone named Clinton, and—implicitly, in its tone—anyone who falls in these categories and is also a woman. It is the sort of letter that could arouse resentment among lots of senators, even Republicans—and among lots of female voters, especially those who are all too familiar with the condescension of powerful men.
For those of you who haven't been following in the blogs, here's the back story. On May 22, Clinton sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, requesting a briefing—for the relevant oversight committees, if not for her personally—about contingency plans for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
On July 16—eight weeks later—she received a reply from the undersecretary of defense for policy, Eric Edelman, saying that he was writing on behalf of Secretary Gates. After a page of boilerplate, Edelman got to the point:
Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. … Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risk in order to achieve compromises of national reconciliation. …
I assure you, however, that as with other plans, we are always evaluating and planning for possible contingencies. As you know, it is long-standing departmental policy that operational plans, including contingency plans, are not related outside of the department.
I appreciate your interest in our mission in Iraq, and would be happy to answer any further questions.
In effect, Edelman was telling her three things. First, you're practically a traitor for even asking these questions. Second, maybe we do have contingency plans for withdrawal, but we're not going to tell you about them. Third, run along now, little lady, I've got work to do.
Today, Clinton wrote a second letter to Gates, informing him that this underling Edelman—"writing on your behalf"—seems to believe "that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies." Calling his letter "outrageous and dangerous," Clinton wondered whether it "accurately characterizes your views as secretary of defense." She then renewed her request for the briefing, "classified if necessary," and added, as a kicker, "I would appreciate the courtesy of a prompt response directly from you."
A couple basic facts need to be highlighted here.