It was the classic 3 a.m. call, and Bill Clinton later said that not responding to it was the biggest mistake of his presidency. In April 1994, murderous Hutu tribesmen in Rwanda launched one of the worst killing sprees of modern times. Haunted by the "Black Hawk Down" debacle in Somalia a year earlier, when 18 U.S. servicemen were killed, the Clinton administration and the United Nations sat paralyzed while genocide occurred: 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in just 100 days. "Clinton now realizes he was incredibly ill served by his national-security team," a former senior adviser told NEWSWEEK shortly before Clinton left office, in an anonymous postmortem on his presidency. Last December, however, the former president said for the first time that one person in the White House did advise him to send in U.S. troops—his wife, Hillary. Relentlessly touting her readiness to be commander in chief compared with Barack Obama, Clinton said, "If I had moved then, we might have saved as many as a third of those lives, and I think she would have done that." Hillary, asked about her supposed Rwanda counsel on ABC, said, "It is true."
But there's no record of this advice being offered before Bill's remarks. Neither Hillary nor the president mention it in their memoirs; no Clinton official who served at the time has come forward with any recollection of it being discussed. Hillary's longtime friend Greg Craig came close to calling her a liar last week for this and other claims of foreign-policy experience. "As far as the record shows, Senator Clinton never answered the phone … to make a decision on any pressing national security issue—not at 3 a.m. or at any other time of day," wrote Craig, who once defended Bill Clinton at his impeachment trial and is now a senior Obama adviser, in a widely circulated memo. Craig, who met Hillary in 1969 at Yale Law, tells NEWSWEEK he was just being "lawyerly." He also says it was Clinton who started this fight with the "red phone" ad that raised questions about Obama's preparedness to be commander in chief. Any truce "has to begin with Senator Clinton acknowledging that Barack Obama is qualified and capable of being commander in chief," Craig says.
Score one for the Obama team? Not so fast. Both the Clinton and Obama camps have exaggerated their claims against the other (a mutual bloodletting that can only benefit John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee). Every candidate has vulnerabilities. Take the Obama camp's effort to undercut Clinton over, well, Rwanda. Here's the twist: during the '94 genocide, two of the key Clinton administration players involved in the decision not to intervene were Anthony Lake and Susan Rice, now the two most senior foreign-policy advisers to … Barack Obama. Lake, an Africa expert, was Clinton's first-term national-security adviser; Rice, another Africanist, was then in charge of advising his National Security Council on peacekeeping and international organizations such as the United Nations. "Essentially, they wanted [Rwanda] to go away," says scholar Michael Barnett, who worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations then and later wrote the book "Eyewitness to Genocide." "There was little interest by Rice or Lake in trying to stir up any action in Washington." Lake, especially, has admitted to feeling haunted by his inaction—so much so that he has advised Obama to propose a "limited military venture" in Darfur. (Rice tells NEWSWEEK she was too "junior" to have affected decision making then, but that "everyone who lived through that feels profoundly remorseful and bothered by it.") Lake also withdrew his nomination for CIA chief in 1997 when he faced intense questioning on Capitol Hill over various issues, saying the process was too taxing.
Some foreign-policy elites in Washington, D.C., say such questions about the kind of advice Obama might be getting tend to reinforce the chief doubt the Clintonites have raised: that he has too little experience. Recently, another Obama foreign-policy adviser, Harvard professor Samantha Power, was forced to resign after calling Hillary a "monster." Some defense experts wonder why he has no Army or Marine generals counseling him about Iraq (his top military advisers are Air Force and Navy). "That's got to be a bit worrisome," says Andrew Krepinevich, a Washington-based defense analyst. "The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he is focused heavily on are primarily Army and Marine Corps operations."
By relentlessly trying to define each other as unqualified, the two Democrats may be creating persistent doubts in the minds of voters—and doing the GOP's dirty work. "She's attacking him the way the Republicans will be attacking him," says Craig. Clinton advisers express worry that if she wins the nomination, McCain will re-air all the doubts Obama has raised about her actual experience and her integrity. Not surprisingly, the two senators agreed, during a Senate chat last week, to restrain their more zealous supporters. (Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says, "I am confident that when the primary season is over, the Democrats will come together.") McCain, meanwhile, is cleverly playing the statesman, heading to Europe and the Mideast this week to confer with "leaders I have strong relationships with," as he put it to reporters.
Obama and Clinton actually come out looking better than the negative ads and squabbling memos indicate. While Craig made a strong case that Clinton overstated her foreign-policy experience as First Lady, neither was it negligible. Yes, Clinton has seemed to exaggerate the danger she faced when, for example, she went to war-ravaged Bosnia in 1996. Campaigning in Iowa, she claimed she "ran" off the tarmac to avoid sniper fire. But Maj. Gen. William Nash, the commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia at the time, tells NEWSWEEK he was not aware "there was any threat of sniper fire." Nor was there any rush when her cargo plane landed.
Still, Clinton is right to claim that she achieved some breakthroughs rather unusual for a First Lady. "She led the delegation to Beijing at the U.N. human-rights conference in 1995," says former Clinton deputy national-security adviser Jim Steinberg, who's not advising either candidate. "And she played a significant role in dealing with refugees in Kosovo." Clinton has been particularly hammered for her claim that she helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland at talks led by former senator George Mitchell. "At no time did she play any role in the critical negotiations that ultimately produced the peace," Craig wrote. But Steinberg says she had impact by meeting repeatedly with Roman Catholic and Protestant women and "bringing the communities together … These were not classic state-to-state negotiations; these were two sides of internecine war."
Though Obama has only been in Washington for three years, he has shown sophistication on foreign policy from his earliest weeks in office. He wowed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with his questioning of Condoleezza Rice at her January 2005 confirmation hearings. He's also pushed through significant foreign-policy legislation—arguably even more noteworthy than what Clinton's done in this capacity—such as the nonproliferation law he cosponsored last year with GOP lion Richard Lugar. Nor should Obama be judged now by advisers who volunteered their services when Clinton was all but assured the nomination last fall. "Those foreign-policy experts who decided not to work for Senator Clinton were bucking the conventional wisdom," says Mitchell Reiss, George W. Bush's former State policy planning chief. "Look at the product," Craig told NEWSWEEK. "His decision making, his judgment." But it's hard to see with all the mud flying now—and the candidates, desperate for any edge, will be hitting each other with a lot of it in the long weeks before the Pennsylvania primary.