In 1997, after a distinguished career in military service that culminated with stints as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Colin Powell launched a charity. Named America’s Promise, it’s built around the theme of Five Promises to America’s children. And while I’ve never heard it praised as a particularly cost-effective way to help humanity by effective altruists, it was surely a reasonably good cause for a famous and politically popular man to dedicate himself to.Yglesias is not trying to smear Colin Powell, but to put the Clinton Foundation in context. Yes, people gave money to the Clinton Foundation because they wanted to make a connection with the Clintons, or to keep an old one going. Some of them later asked the Clintons for favors. But that, my friends, is how the world is run and always has been run. In our era the system has become on the whole less nakedly corrupt than it used to be – when, for example, Ben Franklin's manifold connections throughout the Pennsylvania government insured that he became and remained the colony's printer without ever submitting a bid. But the world still runs on personal connections, especially at the highest levels.
Needless to say, however, Powell continued to be involved in American political life. His sky-high poll numbers ensured he’d be buzzed about as a possible presidential or vice presidential nominee, either as a moderate Republican or as an independent. Realistically, that wasn’t in the cards, and Powell was smart enough to know it. But his support for George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign lent him valuable credibility, and his recruitment to serve as Bush’s first secretary of state was considered an important political and substantive coup by Bush.
So what about the charity? Well, Powell’s wife, Alma Powell, took it over. And it kept raking in donations from corporate America. Ken Lay, the chair of Enron, was a big donor. He also backed a literacy-related charity that was founded by the then-president’s mother. The US Department of State, at the time Powell was secretary, went to bat for Enron in a dispute the company was having with the Indian government.
I have several times mentioned here a book that made a huge impression on me, the joint memoir that George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft wrote about their foreign policy in 1988-1992. I would argue that the elder Bush had the best and most successful foreign policy of my lifetime, so I suggest taking his views seriously. And to Bush, absolutely everything is about personal connections. Every time there is a crisis, he says something like "so I called my good friend the Emir," "so I reached out to an old friend who was the President's chief of staff", or "fortunately my good friend the Ambassador was also in the room, so we were able to work things out." When things go badly it is because the people involved don't have enough prior knowledge of each other, and their suspicions make honest dealing impossible.
That is the world in which the Clintons move. Of course they want to get to know all the world leaders, master diplomats, movers, shakers, Nobel prize-winning economists, etc. they can meet, because, hey, you never know when there will be a blow-up and you'll need to call on such a person for help. And all those people want to get to know them.
Obviously this sort of thing can be a ready cover for naked corruption, and even without crass influence buying it makes it easy to turn power into money. If you think that any sort of trading access and influence for money is corrupt, then the Clintons are corrupt. But, you know, Pennsylvania has never again achieved the degree of excellence in printing they got from Ben Franklin, and nobody who has not played this game is going to have the kind of connections that Bush put to such good use over the re-unification of Germany and reversing Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait.
The elite dominance of international affairs does create other problems. It means that sometimes the opinions of ordinary voters seem hardly to matter at all, compared to semi-secret understandings reached between old golf buddies. I regularly complain about the weird elite consensus that dominates American decision making about questions like Syria, full of tough talk about drawing red lines and standing up for our friends. Obama seems to feel the same way; one of his proudest accomplishments in foreign policy is the time he stood up to that consensus and refused to order missile attacks on the Syrian government. I value Obama's moral contribution to our foreign and military policies – his ban on torture, his attempts to reduce rather than escalate violence, his refusal to smile at authoritarian regimes – but honestly the practical results have been less than stellar. (Far batter than Bush II, in my view, but that's a low bar.)
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Hillary Clinton is not particularly corrupt. Morally, she is a perfectly ordinary member of our political elite: she has taken money from her friends but never sold out a position she cared about for cash. Nobody can find any example of her being bribed into a position she would otherwise have opposed. In fact there were recently headlines because she keeps abusing for-profit colleges even though leaders in that industry have given thousands to the foundation.
If what you want is a radical overthrow of the capitalist, hierarchical, militarized world, obviously Hillary is not your candidate. She is a creature of the system as it exists. But nobody owns her, and no amount of giving to her foundation or paying her speaking fees will change her approach to the presidency.