Jonathan Tasini, who is trying to get on the ballot to run against Clinton in New York’s Democratic primary, claims that a “significant” part of the insurgency will disappear as soon as American troops leave. He must be using the same crystal ball in which Dick Cheney foresaw American soldiers’ being greeted as “liberators.” Four years on, we should have learned tremendous humility when it comes to predicting events in Iraq. The U.S. military presence is clearly inflaming hatreds, but it’s saving lives, too. To exit while there’s still a decent chance of fostering stability would compound our mistakes.
The challenge for Clinton—either now, if Tasini hectors her through September, or in January 2008, if she’s running in the Iowa presidential caucus—will be to stay in the center without looking like she’s dodging the war issue. The conventional, depressing wisdom is that Clinton has no political need to risk going any further in fleshing out her ideas: The situation in Iraq will be different by 2008, and she enjoys a huge lead in her New York Senate reelection campaign. But that lead is also a valuable opportunity.
Clinton has already hinted at part of her thinking by repeatedly citing the decades-long presence of American military bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, and the long-term deployment of troops in Kosovo and Bosnia. She needs to continue to press Bush to turn responsibility for security over to the Iraqi government. But Clinton could quiet those who criticize her as a craven triangulator by offering a responsible third way between “staying the course” and a phased withdrawal. Americans are sick of slogans; they’re ready for complexity. She doesn’t need to specify every date or redeployment. By outlining a Democratic strategy for defeating the insurgency, Hillary Clinton could show that it takes spine, not simply calculation, to stand in the messy center.