In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ramsey Clark, the son of Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, to be his attorney general. The young Clark had pedigree, had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and had previous experience in government.
Clark took his oath of office shortly before his 40th birthday, and played a hand in much of Johnson-era civil right legislation. His real legacy, however, has been in his post-government career. Clark was an unabashed supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In the days after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy, President Jimmy Carter dispatched Clark to Tehran with a letter for Khomeini (it was never delivered; Khomeini refused him entry, and Clark cooled his heels in Istanbul before heading home). After Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Clark embraced Saddam Hussein. He condemned the U.S. liberation of Kuwait, and accused most of the George H.W. Bush administration of complicity in war crimes.
The Clinton team was no better in Clark’s mind: he blamed the White House rather than Saddam’s behavior for sanctions and accused the United States of complicity in killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He also sided with Slobodan Milosevic in the wake of the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. There is seldom a radical cause that Clark is not willing to embrace; many of his supporters—and perhaps Clark himself—believe the fact that he was the attorney general of the United States adds credibility to his case.
So far, it is a toss-up between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama for the distinction of being the most left-wing president. When it came to foreign affairs Harold Brown—Carter’s defense secretary—provided some adult supervision, however, talking his boss out of his desire to unilaterally withdrawal forces from the Korean peninsula and other ideological excesses which the Soviet Union and its proxies would have exploited. Bob Gates and perhaps Leon Panetta played much the same role for Obama. But as Obama enters his second term, he has let his foreign affairs ideology shine ever more clearly through. There were, of course, hints as to where Obama stood in his first term. But when push came to shove, Obama was not willing to stand by radicals such as Van Jones, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist whom the president gave an environmental policy perch at the White House until controversy ensued.
Decades in the Senate may have made John Kerry mainstream in the public mind, but Kerry’s foreign policy instincts have always been far to the left. John Brennan, too, has instincts outside the mainstream, even if he has walked back past statements about cooperating with “moderate Hezbollah.” Chuck Hagel—while socially as conservative as former Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin—has a blind spot toward tyranny and dictatorship as great as Clark’s, be it with Hamas, Kazakhstan, Iran, or Hezbollah. He is not a young man, however, and it is doubtful that he will jet across the globe ever condemning the United States. Hagel’s problem is not disloyalty to the United States—he is most certainly a patriot—but rather the arrogance and bigotry to assume that those who disagree with him harbor dual loyalties. This—and not the distracting debate about “Israel lobby” versus “Jewish lobby”—reflect his latent anti-Semitism. That may be of concern to the Jewish community, but many men harbor prejudice, however hard they seek to conceal it. A greater issue is the fact that—in Senator John McCain’s words—Hagel’s confirmation hearings showed his incompetence for the job. Make no mistake: Hagel will do great harm to U.S. national security, but he is no Ramsey Clark.
As Obama drives farther to the left, however, it is only a matter of time until he, Brennan, or Hagel appoint to a senior post a young radical who will leverage a White House, CIA, or Pentagon credential to encourage moral equivalence or legitimize a new generation of tyrants and terrorists.
I omit Kerry because, alas, too many diplomats have for so long effused moral equivalency and an embarrassment about the legacy of the United States that being a “dissident diplomat” today means being conservative and embracing American exceptionalism.
Still, if there is one lesson from Ramsey Clark’s life story, it is that credentials do not automatically bestow common sense or a love of liberty and freedom. Johnson likely appointed Clark in order to encourage his father to resign from the Supreme Court, enabling the president to replace the conservative elder Clark with a fresh face—Thurgood Marshall. Johnson’s desire to diversify the Supreme Court may have been honorable, but his political maneuverings had a cost which continues to the present. Let us hope that the Congress and press will not abandon their respectively formal and informal oversight roles as Obama and his secretaries combine foreign policy radicalism with cynical political maneuvering.