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Clinton Devised Both Pro-war and Anti-war Candidacy

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) doesn’t clinch the Democratic nomination this evening, there will be no shortage of reasons why: the force of enthusiasm for a transformative politics embodied by Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), for example, or dislike of her campaign’s bare-knuckle tactics in the last four weeks. But it may be that 10 minutes in Hollywood on Thursday could prove to be her Waterloo — if not now, then perhaps in November.

At the CNN debate last week, Clinton again explained her Iraq position. She claimed that her original support for the war wasn’t, in fact, support for the war, but was instead a vote cast in October 2002 to avoid war — granting President George W. Bush an authority that he "abused." She misrepresented an alternative proposal at the time as "subordinat[ing] whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council."

Rather than concede that her support for the war was a mistake, on Thursday Clinton launched into an elaborate re-litigation of her reasons for backing the war (contradicting her first point) before rejecting the idea that she was naive to trust Bush. All this came, somehow, in the service of pledging, with caveats, to bring "nearly all" U.S. troops home from Iraq "within a year" of her election. If there was a consistent thread, it was that Clinton believes herself to have always been right on Iraq — both when she was for the war and now that she is against it.

Clinton believes herself to have always been right on Iraq — both when she was for the war and now that she is against it.

None of this should be surprising when considering Clinton’s evolution on Iraq. Indeed, Clinton set herself up to run for president as both a pro-war and an anti-war candidate — depending on the contingencies of the war and the politics of the moment.

Clinton’s statements during October 2002 have received much attention. But what she’s said in the intervening years demonstrates a vertigo-inducing lack of clarity. Her position tracked the political zeitgeist elegantly: cautiously in favor of the war before it started; enthusiastically in favor of it during its first year; overtaken with doubt during 2004; nervously against withdrawal in 2005; cautiously in favor of withdrawal ever since — and all without so much as an acknowledgment of her myriad repositioning. At no point did she challenge the prevailing assumptions behind the war.

Looking at Clinton’s statements during critical moments in the war underscores her obscurantism on the most important issue of U.S. national security — a stance that makes sense only in the related contexts of strategic confusion and political expediency.

Her position tracked the political zeitgeist elegantly: cautiously in favor of the war before it started; enthusiastically in favor of it during its first year; overtaken with doubt during 2004; nervously against withdrawal in 2005; cautiously in favor of withdrawal ever since…

The positioning began, quite naturally, with her Oct. 10, 2002 vote authorizing the use force against Iraq. Clinton’s speech on the Senate floor was a nuanced and sophisticated tally of the available options: to unilaterally invade Iraq without U.N. Security Council authority (as the Bush administration had debated that summer); to "only resort to force if and when the United Nations Security Council approves it," or to back Bush in Congress in order for him to build the strongest possible diplomatic coalition against Saddam Hussein. Indeed, Clinton is correctly characterizing her 2002 arguments when she reminds voters that her vote was intended to make "success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore, war less likely."

But Clinton also recognized in that same speech that she knew she was voting for war. First, she said, "if we get a clear requirement for unfettered inspections, I believe the authority to use force to enforce that mandate is inherent in the original 1991 resolution." For Saddam Hussein not to comply with a U.N. resolution would put Washington in a better position to "attack him with far more support and legitimacy than we would have otherwise." War, therefore, was not averted under Clinton’s scenario, merely deferred.

And finally, she reflected a comment aimed at her constituents, "This is probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make — any vote that may lead to war should be hard — but I cast it with conviction."

What that conviction was remains hard to understand. Clinton’s vote authorized Bush to invade Iraq. Her elaborate justification complicated that picture — at least, if Bush was interested in making the New York senator’s case for disarming Saddam Hussein, rather than his own.

But whatever her intent, the net effect was to give Clinton plausible arguments for standing simultaneously on both the pro-war and the anti-war sides of the argument. She was not alone. A month before he voted for the war, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) aired his doubts in The New York Times, revealing the complicated position that would taint his 2004 bid for the presidency.

The vote that most damaged Kerry’s presidential aspirations was probably not his vote for the war, but his rejection of the 2003 supplemental bill authorizing $87 billion to rebuild Iraq. Clinton made no such move. She voted for the money in October 2003, calling it a vote "for our troops [and]… for our mission," but not for Bush’s "failed leadership."

During her first trip to Baghdad the next month, Clinton said the Bush administration "ought to internationalize" the occupation of Iraq. But she issued no stronger criticism, though the insurgency was coalescing and Bush had just rewritten his roadmap for phasing out the U.S. occupation authority. The U.S. "must stay the course," Clinton told The Buffalo News by telephone.

Shortly after her return to the U.S., Clinton outlined her thinking on the war to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Dec. 15. It was a heady moment in the war’s fortunes: two days before, U.S. forces had captured Saddam Hussein, and the press had battered the then-Democratic presidential front-runner, Howard Dean, for saying, presciently, that the dictator’s capture would not improve U.S. fortunes in the occupation.

Clinton not only declined to defend Dean, she jettisoned the caveats she had attached to her war vote the previous year, taking full ownership of what still seemed like a success. "I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein," she said. "I believe that that was the right vote. I have had many disputes and disagreements with the administration over how that authority has been used, but I stand by the vote to provide the authority because I think it was a necessary step in order to maximize the outcome that did occur in the Security Council with the unanimous vote to send in inspectors."

By 2004, Clinton was an effective surrogate for Kerry’s critique of the war — that Bush had bungled what remained a good idea.

Some of this might have to do with gender politics. A woman candidate often confronts a "toughness" hurdle that her male counterpart doesn’t. But, significantly, all Clinton’s pre-war fears about U.S. unilateralism had been borne out. At the Council on Foreign Relations, however, Clinton didn’t let that get in the way of applauding the war. She lauded a cosmetic attempt at enlisting NATO troops and castigated "whatever remains of the insurgency."

By 2004, Clinton was an effective surrogate for Kerry’s critique of the war — that Bush had bungled what remained a good idea. Following a major spring speech from Bush about the impending June dissolution of the occupation authority, Clinton commented, "there are still many unanswered questions about what will occur on June 30 and in the days that follow.”

On the trail, her criticism of Bush’s war leadership shaded up in intensity. "I don’t understand how [the administration] had such an unrealistic view of what was going to happen" after the invasion Clinton told CNN’s Larry King in April. Yet asked if she regretted her vote, she replied, "No, I don’t regret giving the president authority because at the time it was in the context of weapons of mass destruction, grave threats to the United States, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade."

This position — for the war, but against Bush’s prosecution of it — was labeled the "incompetence dodge" in The American Prospect by Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias. Rosenfeld and Yglesias argued that the position elided the tough strategic questions of whether an invasion to install a democracy made sense on its own merits or as a counterterrorism policy. Clinton’s incompetence dodge remained a feature of her increasingly strident criticism of Iraq after Bush’s reelection — matching the country’s frustration with a bloody, deteriorating war. "We are increasingly concerned that Iraq could become what it was not before the war: a haven for radical fundamentalist terrorists determined to attack America and American interests," she and most other Democratic senators wrote to Bush in October 2005.

Yet Clinton added a new twist. That November, a year before she faced her first re-election and at a perilous moment in the war, Clinton wrote an agonized letter on Iraq to her constituents. After several paragraphs excoriating Bush’s missteps, she confessed, "I take responsibility for my vote, and I, along with a majority of Americans, expect the president and his administration to take responsibility for the false assurances, faulty evidence and mismanagement of the war." But there was a new element to Clinton’s argument. She opposed what she called "an open-ended commitment" in Iraq. But she also didn’t "believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately," adding that setting a date for withdrawal amounted to a "rigid timetable that terrorists can exploit."

As Clinton prepared to run for president, the polls showed the country, and especially her party base, soured on the war, and so she finally settled on a stable position: she would be an anti-war candidate.

"I support a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq that should begin before the end of 2006," she stated that summer, not long after Democratic voters rejected the party’s most vocal pro-war senator, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. While Clinton has never endorsed setting a date for withdrawing entirely, she has nonetheless tried to leave the impression with primary voters that she has. Her stump speech last year contained the refrain, "If President Bush doesn’t end the war in Iraq before he leaves office, when I’m president, I will," suggesting that she favored a withdrawal by January 2009, without ever actually calling for one. Furthermore, as 2007 ground on and Clinton’s rivals for the nomination ran to her left on the war, she voted against war-spending authorization bills for the first time, explaining that she did not "believe we should continue to vote for funding that has an open-ended commitment."

If Clinton’s transformation into an opponent of the war has been complete, three things remain striking. The first is how her critique has been contingent on events. If the Iraq war takes a dramatic turn for the better, Clinton’s criticisms of the war could still be commensurate with a pro-war agenda. After all, she has argued that the war needed better management, not that it is the result of a misguided strategy or worldview.

The second is how that position prevents her from making any more thorough critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. That may be by design. In a lengthy New Republic profile last year, Michael Crowley argued that Clinton "really believed in the war." If her problems with the Bush’s administration’s handling of foreign affairs appear limited to questions of implementation, Crowley’s profile suggested, that’s because they are. That, in turn, has liberated Obama to attack "the mindset that got us into war in the first place" — implicating Clinton in the war’s authorship.

And there’s a final significance to Clinton’s turn against the war. In November, the Democratic nominee will probably face a Republican who believed deeply in the war, but who also repeatedly criticized the war’s execution — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). McCain, a war hero, has national-security bona fides that few candidates possess. He will be able to inhabit the space Clinton has carved out for herself over the past two years: sober critic and skeptic of Bush. However, he’ll also be able to pounce on her inconsistency and vacillation, if Thursday’s debate is any indication, in a replay of the "flip-flopper" charge that doomed Kerry four years ago. Unlike Obama, Clinton will have no way of pivoting to a broader indictment of the militarism that McCain cheerfully espouses. It may be that, nearly six years after Clinton thought she had positioned herself to avoid all the pitfalls of the war, her calculation itself was what ultimately sealed the fate of her candidacy.

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