Obama Adviser Greg Craig: A Man of Merit

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  • Highly qualified for Obama’s foreign policy advisory
  • Some of Craig’s Latin American legal clients leave him vulnerable to political attacks because of their odoriferous backgrounds
  • The right man to revive deeply flawed US – Latin American relations
  • A call from COHA to rescind his defense of two notorious Bolivian political figures

Campaign Season: Scrutiny Runs High
As the presidential election approaches, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama continues to be targeted for his lack of foreign policy experience. In spite of his recent trip to Europe and the Middle East, he is viewed as a relative newcomer by his political critics and much of the media. Obama only has held a seat in Congress since 2004, and although he is today a member of the highly visible Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he has not been able to overcome his lack of sufficient tenure in the eyes of many. A knowledgeable corps of foreign policy advisers can go a long way to help remedy Obama’s professed inexperience. Such aides should not only be experienced but also devoid of any past controversial associations so as not to tarnish the Obama campaign. In Washington, it is quite difficult to maintain this carefully styled balance of image and expertise. For instance, Obama’s esteemed foreign policy expert, Samantha Power, was forced to resign in March after having uttered inflammatory comments aimed at Hillary Clinton. Obama’s foreign policy continues to be targeted. Gregory Craig, one of his senior foreign policy advisers, is under fire for his dual role as a private defense attorney and political adviser.

Knowledgeable and experienced, Craig is a crucial component to the Democrat’s run for the White House. A number of detractors, however, believe that several of his legal involvements may compromise his ability to serve the Obama campaign with full effectiveness and rectitude. Nevertheless, Craig’s impressive foreign policy work under Senator Edward Kennedy and former President Bill Clinton should give pause to his critics. His long dedication to liberal and humane causes far outweighs any political liability that his legal obligations may present.

Political Background of Gregory Craig
Craig has worked in various capacities on issues related to diplomacy, defense, human rights, energy, and trade. His political career took flight in 1984 when he became a senior adviser on defense, foreign policy, and national security issues to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Craig is credited with playing a major role in drafting Kennedy’s opposition to apartheid, for which he was commended by Randall Robinson, then president of the TransAfrica Forum. Indeed, this opposition proved integral in passing economic sanctions against the deplorable South African regime in 1986. Craig also worked to expose civil rights abuses in Nicaragua during that country’s civil war. He traveled to the region with fellow Congressional staffers, both Democrats and Republicans, to conduct an important investigation into the origins of the conflict.

During his time with Kennedy, Craig always maintained an open door to the partisans of human rights issues. Be it in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Nicaragua or elsewhere, Craig gave his time generously in order to provide protection to the victims of human rights abuses. During this period, COHA developed a relationship with Craig which was both functional and cordial. Craig was always open to phone calls from director Larry Birns on matters of life and death throughout Latin America. He collaborated with the organization on a number of vital humanitarian and political issues, including interventions intended to save the lives of democratic leaders in Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador, whose safety was at risk due to their living under repressive dictatorships and depended on outside intervention for their protection.

A Return to the Political Sphere
After a nine year hiatus from politics to practice law, Craig returned to the public sector in 1997 as the Director of Policy Planning for the State Department. In this role, he analyzed long-term global trends in order to provide recommendations on a number of foreign policy issues for then Secretary of State Madeline Albright. He worked to form a comprehensive U.S. response to nuclear tests in India and Pakistan and developed a versatile approach to dealing with political and religious strife in Turkey. Perhaps Craig’s most notable work during this period came about from being appointed Special Coordinator to Tibet. In this position, he coordinated U.S. policy targeted at protecting Tibet from China’s often intrusive and sometime abusive strategy, while also facilitating talks between the Dalai Lama and representatives of the Beijing government, all the while emphasizing the protection of human rights.

Since his departure from formal policy making in 1998, Craig has stayed politically involved through his membership in various international bodies and organizations. He is currently the vice-chairman of the International Human Rights Law Group and also holds membership on the boards of several altruistic organizations, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO, and the Overseas Development Council. Such positions speak volumes about Craig’s high-minded moral code and his record of personal involvement with just causes and public righteousness.

An Impressive Legal Résumé
In addition to his political work, Craig is a distinguished defense attorney. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1971, he taught trial practice at both Yale (1975-76) and Harvard (1981-84). Since then, he has established himself as one of the most influential partners of the prestigious Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly. Perhaps there is no better benchmark for measuring the skill of a defense attorney than the clientele they keep, and Craig certainly measures up to this standard. His legal résumé includes serving as personal counsel to two international figures, representing Bill Clinton during his 1998 impeachment proceedings and Kofi Annan, former Secretary General to the United Nations, during the 2004 Oil for Food scandal.

Further evidence of Craig’s high level of professionalism is his “preeminent” rating on the Martindale-Hubbell scale, a ranking system for lawyers in which members of the Bar and Judiciary rate their peers in terms of conduct, ethics, reliability, and diligence. Through decades of experience, Craig has built a strong reputation as an effective lawyer in both criminal and civil cases, domestic and international. He has had extensive legal work involving clients coming from the Americas. He represented Elián Gonzáles’ father, a former President of Panama, and the Panamanian government, among other regional clients. However his representation of several controversial clients is now being used by some critics to mistakenly bash his role in the Obama campaign, and the time may have come to drop those clients.

Uproar in Bolivia
Craig’s representation of former Bolivian President Gonzálo Sánchez de Lozada and former Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín has raised legitimate doubts regarding his moral commitment to Latin America. Sánchez Berzaín and Sánchez de Lozada are currently under indictment in the United States for their involvement in the government-sponsored killing of 67 protestors in El Alto, Bolivia during the fall of 2003. Incontestably, then-president Sánchez de Lozada ordered troops into El Alto and Sánchez Berzaín gave them the green light to open fire on unarmed civilians; one simply cannot deny the facts of the case.

In June of this year, both Sánchez Berzaín and Sánchez de Lozada were quietly granted political asylum as they awaited trial in Miami in proceedings brought under the Alien Tort Statute. Professor Eduardo Gammara of Florida International University has argued inaccurately that it was the U.S. judiciary – and not the White House – which was responsible for granting asylum to both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín. To the contrary, the Andean Information Network, citing the Motion to Dismiss filed by Sánchez Berzaín’s legal defense, has claimed that it was in fact the U.S. State Department that advised the Department of Justice to grant the two men asylum based on their close political ties to the U.S. while in office.

The Bush administration’s decision to protect these powerful figures has sent a disconcerting message of American elitism to the Bolivian citizenry. On June 9, 20,000 protestors gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Bolivia to denounce the U.S. for its actions. Eight days later, 7,000 protestors gathered again to demand that both men be extradited back to Bolivia to face trial for staging the massacres for which they are accused. The protests so strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Bolivia that U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg was temporarily recalled to Washington. Meanwhile Gustavo Guzman, the Bolivian ambassador to the U.S., has prepared his extradition requests seeking the return of the accused to Bolivia. These requests are expected to be delivered to the State Department before the end of this month.

Human rights advocates believe that Craig’s continued representation of Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín demonstrates his readiness to defend the interests of the rich and famous against the poor. Admittedly, such charges complicate his reputation in Latin America, and for some bring into question his true commitment to regional solidarity.

A Conflict of Interest Regarding Panama
Another controversial Latin American figure on Craig’s client list is Panamanian national Pedro Miguel González Pinzón, a persistent critic of the United States. González Pinzón was tried and acquitted in Panama for the 1992 murder of U.S. Army Sergeant Zak Hernández Laporte. He remains under indictment in the U.S. To Washington’s dismay, he was elected president of the Panamanian Legislature in 2007. A number of U.S. legislators responded angrily by rescinding their support for the proposed U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement so long as González Pinzón was involved in the negotiation process. Senator Obama is among those who have refused to move forward on the bilateral free trade vote. He has promised to stall ratification of the free trade agreement until “justice” is served; however, his opinion on the matter runs contrary to the tack taken by Craig as González Pinzón’s defense attorney.

Craig has acknowledged the potential conflict of interest into which this situation places him and has tried to separate his legal and political responsibilities accordingly. He now maintains that his involvement in the González Pinzón case will not impact his role as an Obama adviser because he has “removed [himself] from participation in discussions with the candidate or his advisers on relations between the United States and Panama.” From a legal standpoint, this nullifies any conflict of interest situation; however, his position is still being criticized by some policy makers. These critics believe that Craig’s admitted conflict of interest will not be addressed simply by his avoiding certain meetings. Supporters of John McCain cite the resignation of top officials from the Republican campaign over much less damaging allegations than Craig’s involvement with González Pinzón as reason enough for his dismissal. Nevertheless, his defenders argue that Craig’s decision to recuse himself from any discussions regarding Panama effectively eliminates any conflict of interest problem. Accordingly, Obama has made a prudent decision in keeping Craig a member of his team, correctly valuing Craig’s experience more than the unwarranted calls asking for his resignation.

A Legal Analysis of Unfounded Criticism
Criticism of Craig’s role in the Obama campaign has focused primarily on his private legal practice. For instance, the conservative nonprofit American Future Fund has called for Craig’s dismissal from Obama’s advisory staff due to his representation of clients such as Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín. According to these critics, Craig’s professional clientele reflects his personal character. Not only is this claim somewhat unmerited – he has represented both sides in human rights cases – but, as Craig’s defenders insist, his detractors completely disregard his professional obligations as an attorney.

The fair representation of defendants, irrespective of their personal character, is an integral facet of America’s legal system. Rule 1.2(b) of the American Bar Association Client-Lawyer Relationship states, “A lawyer’s representation of a client, including representation by appointment, does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities.” The quintessential example of this is John Adams’ storied defense of British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre; a more contemporary example would be the defense of accused terrorists by U.S. military lawyers. Georgetown law professor David Luban, who authored a book entitled Lawyers and Justice: An Ethical Study, further explains: “The fact that a client is controversial is not a reason to decline to represent him or her…the right to a criminal defense is a basic constitutional right, regardless of the crime.” He continues, “Criminal defense lawyers should not in general be judged by the character of the clients they represent.”

Accordingly, most lawyers would probably maintain that the legal criticism coming from Craig’s detractors is unfounded. Still, some critics point out that it is an attorney’s choice to decide who he or she represents or not. This raises questions surrounding Craig’s decision to defend Sánchez Berzaín, Sánchez de Lozada, and González Pinzón. His representation of such clientele could be justified merely on financial considerations. But such a generous definition of one’s professional responsibilities nonetheless provides fuel for Craig’s political critics, who maintain that this is humbuggery, and that if Craig was a person of higher principle, he would reject these presumed moral reprobates as unworthy clients. COHA is in favor of calling upon Craig to withdraw his defense of the two Bolivians and the Panamanian. Due to the facts of the cases, it rejects the notion that his conduct is at all comparable to that of Mark Penn, the former Hillary Clinton strategist who resigned after it was discovered that he traveled to Colombia to promote a free trade agreement which his candidate had publicly opposed. At this point in the campaign, it would be a mistake if Craig was removed from Obama’s camp without a more valid case against him.

A Progressive Vision for U.S.-Latin American Diplomacy
Craig is a likely choice for a cabinet or senior sub-cabinet post in the event of an Obama victory. Due to his skills and universally acknowledged sense of professionalism, this would represent a welcome change departure from the often inept policy making and neglect by a series of deeply-flawed regional policies from the Bush administration. Craig outlined his vision of what U.S. – Latin American relations should look like in the post-Bush era during a March 25 roundtable discussion hosted by the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

At that discussion, Craig proposed that the U.S. engage in a multilateral approach to hemispheric diplomacy which respects truly democratic governments, regardless of their political or economic orientation, in order to promote strong links between the North and South. He emphasized the importance of recognizing the sovereignty of other regional governments, stating that the U.S. has “suffered” as a whole because the Bush administration “has cared more about outcomes than about process.” This is a reasonable and pragmatic approach to politics which can be traced to Craig’s unfairly maligned legal profession. In giving his sophisticated analysis, he correctly points out that by patently intervening in free and fair elections in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Bolivia, the U.S. has not only compromised its own democratic values but also has elicited deep-rooted animosity from its southern neighbors.

Interference in electoral processes is problematic because it allows the U.S. to dictate another nation’s internal and external affairs. Manipulated trade agreements present a similar dilemma. Under President Bush, the U.S. has exploited its dominant trading position by negotiating targeted trade pacts with close political allies. In the era of free trade, this piecemeal bilateral approach appears to have jeopardized any prospect for integrated hemispheric ties. Some regional specialists take the position that these bilateral trade agreements bypass social and economic protections otherwise provided by multilateral agreements. According to Craig, U.S. trade policies favored by the Bush administration have “accentuated division and hostility in the region … against the United States.”

A New Approach to Hemispheric Relations
Craig is by no means opposed to free trade, but he does understand the polarizing effects it can have when pursued without attention to social costs. He believes that our leaders should work to ameliorate the pitfalls of free trade, stating, “you can be in favor of social justice without necessarily being anti-business or anti-investment.” This balanced perspective may be what Washington needs in order to mend the divide between the U.S. and the new left in Latin America. Craig’s vision would entail a greater emphasis on community partnerships to build international solidarity as well as increased cross-border exchange programs among students, academics, and business professionals. As he sees it, America should not be apprehensive about creating a more balanced and equitable relationship with its southern neighbors. Indeed, any economic gains made by the impoverished populations of Central and South America and the Caribbean will ultimately expand free markets, to the benefit of U.S. businesses and consumers alike.

If given the opportunity, Craig stated that he “would try to move away from the traditional agenda of drugs, bugs and trade,” in order to “focus our initiatives and energy to health, education, and poverty [alleviation].” This fresh approach, if given sufficient credence in the White House, could revitalize the strained U.S.-Latin American relationship so long as Washington works with the regions new generation of leftist leaders.

A Necessary Liability
As the election approaches, the controversies surrounding Craig are likely to continue, but are not of sufficient weight to detract from his intrinsic worth to the Obama campaign. Despite the strong case being put forth by his detractors, it is imperative that Craig weather the attack and remain part of Obama’s foreign policy team. His alleged conflict of interest is based on moral rather than legal grounds, and his views regarding foreign policy could lead to vital improvements in the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America. The controversial cases he undertook prior to assuming a role in the Obama campaign – from which he should now withdraw – should not overshadow his solid qualifications and progressive political credentials. An Obama victory or defeat will not be influenced by Craig’s involvement with the campaign. But if Obama does win the election, Craig’s vision for U.S.-Latin American relations will be a great asset to that administration.