Here is senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in December 2003: “Now that we’re [in Iraq], we have no choice. We own this issue. There is no doubt that we’re going to be there for years,” and “Whether you agreed or not that we should be in Iraq, failure is not an option.”
Here she is in November 2005: “I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end. Nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately … We must set reasonable goals to finish what we started and successfully turn over Iraqi security to Iraqis.”
And again, though certainly not for the final time on this subject, about two weeks ago: “Our job is to do everything we can to help this [Iraqi] government succeed … I am hopeful that the administration—which doesn’t listen to any of us, anyway—will finally realize that the policies it has pursued from the very beginning, when they rushed to war, when they refused to let the U.N. inspectors conduct and complete their mission, when they committed strategic blunder after blunder, have undermined America’s leadership in the world and have put at risk the long-term war against terrorism … But I have to just say it—I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government, nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain.”
What troubles people most about Hillary Clinton, even people who’ll end up voting for her against any Republican and nearly any Democrat, is the feeling that she stands for nothing other than her own advancement. That she’s all tactics and no soul. It’s a notion eagerly embellished by her Republican opponents, and at times Clinton helps it along with her equivocations. But Clinton spelled out her reasons for voting to authorize the use of force back in October 2002, and she’s stuck to her position—a true coalition of nations, thorough inspections, invasion only as a last resort, stick it out until Iraq is stable—ever since. With the death toll mounting and the war deeply unpopular, the expedient thing would be to jump on the withdraw-now bandwagon. That would open Clinton to attacks from the right, but it would mollify the left that makes up the Democrats’ loyal core. Nevertheless, Clinton has stayed steadily in the center. Last week, she took a lead role in crafting a Senate amendment that prods the White House to bring some troops home this year. Which isn’t as dramatic as John Kerry’s newfound decisiveness. But even if you think Clinton has been abjectly wrong about Iraq, she deserves credit for consistency.
Yes, I know my Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes, and it’s always tempting to work “hobgoblin” into a sentence. Yet Clinton’s position on the war isn’t small-minded. And it isn’t constructed merely to maintain her political viability. It happens to be what she believes. Hillary Clinton has long been more hawkish than her husband, implying that she favored finishing off Saddam during the first Gulf War and, more recently, talking tough about Iran. “She is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband,” says Richard Holbrooke, the former envoy for Bill Clinton. “Hillary Clinton is a classic national-security Democrat. She is better at framing national-security issues for the current era than her husband was at a common point in his career.” Her position on Iraq is consistent and principled. It may even turn out to be right.
Clinton’s most recent attempt to explain herself drew boos from an audience of Democratic activists. Principled as they are, surely the lefties were booing the substance of her remarks. But the biggest problem with Clinton’s position is that it isn’t easily sound-bitten. It doesn’t have the linguistic or emotional clarity of “Bomb them into submission!” or “Bring the troops home now!” And that’s because there is no easy solution in Iraq.
This has been a terrible, tragic war, from its deceptive inception to its inept execution. I would like nothing better than for it to end tomorrow, with troops safely withdrawn and Iraqis living in prosperous harmony. No one, unfortunately, possesses the magic wand to make that happen. So the question becomes how to salvage a far-beyond-bad situation and minimize the suffering.
Hillary is “better at framing national-security issues for the current era than her husband was at a common point in his career,” says Holbrooke.
It would be nice for Clinton to take a purely idealistic position, in either direction, but simpleminded ideology is one of the things that dug us this hole. If ending the war is the paramount objective, black-and-white declarations aren’t going to help. A “Hillary Plan” would hand the Republicans another cheap diversion, something they’re plenty good at creating on their own. As soon as Clinton articulates her own Iraq exit strategy, she becomes the issue and the target. Bush got us into this mess, and he’s the one who should be held accountable; Bush, not Clinton, is also the one with the power to change course, at least for the next 30 months. Not to mention that it’s pure fantasy to think that anything proposed by Hillary Clinton is going to be adopted by this White House.
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.