A Washington Sage Leaves the Scene
Lee Hamilton, for years a go-to "wise man" for American presidents of both parties, speaks to FP about his many acolytes, Obama's foreign policy, and what to do about Iran.
When members of U.S. Congress retire, they often wind up on K Street, lobbying their successors on behalf of corporate clients and foreign governments.
A handful chooses a less lucrative path, and few with as much distinction and influence as Lee Hamilton, who served 17 terms in the House of Representatives representing Indiana during a period that spans from the early days of the Vietnam War to the fall of the Soviet Union to the Gulf War to U.S. interventions in the former Yugoslavia.
Hamilton, 79, is stepping down this fall after 12 years heading the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is going home to Indiana, where he directs Indiana University’s Center on Congress. He will not entirely disappear from Washington; he remains on several panels, including President Barack Obama’s intelligence advisory board and an Energy Department commission on nuclear waste.
Hamilton also keeps ties to half a dozen senior administration officials, including Obama’s chief foreign-policy speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Christopher Kojm. All got their start as Hamilton staffers at the Wilson Center or on what was once called the House International Relations Committee, where Hamilton served for more than three decades.
In an interview Sept. 28 in his spacious eighth-floor office in the mammoth Ronald Reagan Building, Hamilton downplayed his influence. Although he hosted foreign-policy soirees for Obama during the 2008 campaign and presidential transition and was on the shortlist for secretary of state, Hamilton said he is not now "a close intimate advisor" of the president, but does "see some of his staff fairly regularly." To the extent he is an external sounding board for this or previous administrations, he says, "I am sometimes a partner, sometimes a critic." (In a recent NPR interview, Hamilton noted that so far, "not an awful lot of progress has been made" on foreign-policy issues since Obama took over.)
Rhodes said Obama "has on occasion reached out to him or asked me to share a speech. If he wants to make the president aware of something, there are multiple channels."
Not that Obama always takes Hamilton’s advice.
On Iran, for example, Hamilton criticized the president for not making better use of a Turkish-Brazilian deal last spring that would have sent out 1,200 kilograms of Iran’s low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a Tehran reactor that makes medical isotopes.
Obama should not have dismissed the deal out of hand, Hamilton said, noting that "it wasn’t too different from what we had suggested" to Iran last fall.
"I think we were offended that the Turks and Brazilians would do that and a little chagrined," Hamilton said. "We should have tried to build on the positive aspects of it, and I think we will have to get back to it" if negotiations resume this fall.
Although strongly in favor of engagement when it comes to Iran, Hamilton is no starry-eyed dove. The military option should remain on the table, he said. "I don’t favor exercising it today," he said. "A year from now I don’t know how I’ll feel."
On the Middle East peace process, currently hanging by a thread, Hamilton said the "U.S. at some point will have to weigh in with its ideas as to how this matter can be resolved." The Israelis and Palestinians, he said, simply aren’t up to it, and Obama will have to intervene.
Over the years, Hamilton has become the king of congressionally mandated investigations, from the 9/11 Commission to the Iraq Study Group, both of which he co-chaired.
Mike Van Dusen, executive vice president of the Wilson Center and Hamilton’s top aide for four decades, recalls walking into the White House with him a few years ago and hearing then-President George W. Bush exclaim, "‘God, there’s Hamilton on another commission!’"
Robert Litwak, vice president for programs and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center, says Hamilton "represents an amalgam of different traditions in U.S. foreign policy — idealism, realism, and pragmatism. His hallmark has been translating ideals into pragmatic solutions."
Hamilton was elected to Congress in 1964 in what he called "the best Democratic year in the last century" when "any fool could have been elected on the Democratic ticket and several were."
He had hoped to be on the Committee for Public Works, but was stuck with international relations — now as then not considered a great prize for ambitious freshmen. But a few years later, when then-House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) offered him a spot on the much more influential Ways and Means Committee, Hamilton decided to stay with foreign affairs.
"Albert was astounded," Hamilton said, coming up to him on the House floor at one point and telling him, "I’ve decided you are the dumbest man in the House."
Hamilton attributes his interest in foreign countries in part to a year he spent in Germany on a fellowship after college, studying the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Once on the International Relations Committee, Hamilton applied himself.
"He was willing to spend time learning issues," Van Dusen says. "He went to hearings, he listened, and he asked good questions."
He also put out a newsletter on a different country or issue every week — publications that influenced his colleagues and were "key to his role in Congress," Van Dusen says. Other members would crib from them when they had to make statements or speeches.
The Democratic leadership of the House repeatedly put Hamilton on investigative committees, including one in the mid-1980s that probed the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan White House sold weapons to the Iranian regime and used the proceeds to fund anti-communist fighters in Central America, in defiance of a congressional ban.
Hamilton’s industriousness and energy are legendary. Rhodes, hired by Hamilton in 2002, recalls that his boss — who was already in his 70s at the time — made it to his office at the Wilson Center every weekday morning between 5:30 and 6 a.m.
By the time Rhodes arrived at 8 a.m., Hamilton "would have read seven or eight newspapers, underlining and clipping articles," Rhodes said.
"He kept a running file on countries," Rhodes added. "Even if he was chairing a 9/11 Commission hearing, he would want to know what was going on elsewhere."
Rhodes also attests to Hamilton’s lack of partisanship — an increasingly rare quality in Washington.
On the 9/11 Commission, "there were times when Democrats wanted him to be more forceful in challenging the [Bush] administration," Rhodes recalls. Instead, Hamilton "treated Democratic and Republican witnesses alike."
Rhodes remembers a trip to Baghdad during work on the Iraq Study Group when Hamilton, eating dinner with U.S. generals, asked how they got ice cream and how much it cost to bring it to Iraq.
"’The whole thing is hugely expensive,’" Rhodes quoted Hamilton as saying. "’Is it even appropriate?’ It’s what someone would ask if he was representing his constituents, the taxpayers."
Over the years, Hamilton says, he has become more skeptical of U.S. military intervention, and he’s pessimistic about the future of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq’s current and likely continued prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is too sectarian, he said, not the Iraqi nationalist he claims to be. As for Afghanistan, five years from now, "the Taliban will be there; we largely will not be there."
"We’ve learned that we’ve got to keep objectives and resources in better balance than we do," Hamilton said.
At the Wilson Center, which i
s partially funded by Congress, Hamilton helped transform a sleepy academic think tank into an idea factory more relevant to policymakers and more self-sufficient.
"He made it less wooly-headed," says Robert Hathaway, director of the center’s Asia program and another graduate of Hamilton’s House International Relations Committee.
Under Hamilton, the center’s budget quadrupled but the U.S. taxpayers’ share of it dropped to one-third from two-thirds. The staff nearly doubled, and the number of resident and temporary scholars increased by one-third, including a number of journalists (myself among them: I wrote much of my book on Iran during a three-month stint at the center in the summer of 2006).
The Office of Management and Budget is trying to cut the Wilson Center’s stipend to around $9 million from $12.2 million, Hamilton said. He’s fighting back, hoping to keep the appropriation at last year’s level.
As for his successor, a search committee has compiled a list of 10 or 12 candidates, and interviews will begin in early October, Hamilton says. Some are members of Congress, and there are also "some names that will surprise you," he said, smiling and declining to give details.
William Miller, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, senior scholar at the Wilson Center, and a longtime friend, says that Hamilton will be hard to replace.
"He’s one of the really exemplary public servants that our country has produced," Miller said. "He’s judicious, objective, and incorruptible. Not everyone agrees with his conclusions, but no one doubts that he’s arrived at his judgments through study and objectivity."