Before the American project in Iraq turned from reconstruction back to combat, Senator Hillary Clinton liked to chide the Bush administration about its analogies to World War II.
“It took 10 years to create a stable, sovereign government” in postwar West Germany, she reminded the Council of Foreign Relations in November 2003. And, she noted, “we still have troops in Germany.”
On the question of Iraq, she said, “we have not only the need for patience but a sense that we are going to be involved over the long run.”
Nobody’s talking about the long run any more. The call for withdrawal from a little-known Pennsylvania backbencher, Congressman Jack Murtha, exploded a debate that had been dominated by the caricatures “Stay the Course” and “Cut and Run.” Both parties in Washington are now discussing how many troops will leave before the Congressional elections in 2006. And as the Congress inserts itself into the conduct of foreign policy more forcefully than it has since Sept. 11, 2001, Mrs. Clinton’s complex position on the war is moving into the political foreground.
Mrs. Clinton has been a force on both sides of the debate over the war. She was an early, consistent defender of the rationale for invading Iraq: that Saddam Hussein posed a danger to the U.S. Unlike former Senator John Edwards, among others, she never backed away from her vote to give Mr. Bush the authority to wage war. But she has also questioned whether the invasion was necessary, and from her perch on the Senate Armed Services committee, she has become a leading critic of the war’s prosecution.
Now the Murtha train is leaving the station, and Mrs. Clinton’s calibrated stance could leave her behind. But that stance, with a foot in each camp and a focus more on health care for soldiers than on grand strategy, seems to be making her the right allies (Senate Republicans) and the right enemies (like the antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan) for a national election. As reels of American politics from the Vietnam era flicker across the screen, a lesson of that era seems to apply: The Democratic Presidential nomination in war-ravaged 1968 went not to peace candidate Eugene McCarthy, but to Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. (Of course, it is possible that peace candidate Robert F. Kennedy would have been the party’s nominee in ’68, but he was murdered before the convention.)
Mrs. Clinton hasn’t sought out opportunities to talk about Iraq. A 1,500-word section of her campaign Web site devoted to national security mentions Iraq just twice in passing, and is silent on American policy there. But questions have increasingly followed her and her peers, and a small press conference at a Rye Brook community center on Nov. 22 turned into an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters on the war.
“I have not agreed with either of the positions,” she said. “You know, there are some who believe we should withdraw immediately—I think that would be a big mistake. I think it would cause even more problems for us,” she added, warning that “it will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state like Afghanistan was, where terrorists are free to basically set up camp and launch attacks against us.”
She continued: “On the other hand, what you hear from the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of Defense is, ‘We’ll stay as long as it takes until the job is done.’ They’ve never defined the job, and I don’t think we should give Iraqis an open-ended invitation not to take care of themselves.
“My approach is different. My approach is, we tell them we expect you to meet these certain benchmarks. And that means getting troops and police officers trained, equipped and ready to defend their people.” She said the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections would be crucial in moving that process forward.
New York’s Democratic voters might have preferred an anti-war champion in Washington, but both of the state’s Senators voted to give Mr. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. More recently, both signed a letter calling on Mr. Bush to provide a clear plan for American forces there, and both backed a bipartisan Senate resolution pressing the White House on the same point. Senator Charles Schumer shares the rough outlines of Mrs. Clinton’s position, though he has at times sounded more supportive of the invasion itself. He remains among the Democrats who still defend the necessity of the invasion, though he has been a critic of the war’s conduct. “My vote was seen, and I still see it, as a need to say we must fight a strong and active war on terror,” he told Meet the Press’ Tim Russert in October.
Mrs. Clinton’s position is not one that lends itself to easy slogans. Unlike some Senate Democrats, she has not accused President Bush of misleading her; unlike others, she has not laid out a plan or a timetable for withdrawal.
“It’s not clear, not for most of us—you’re in or you’re out,” said Nita Lowey, a Westchester Congresswoman and close Clinton ally. “It’s a more nuanced problem.”
The lessons of national politics in recent years, however, have not favored nuance, something of which Mrs. Clinton’s advisors are intensely aware.
“Here’s the question: Can you, in a media environment that tends to see things all one way or all the other, in black and white—can you be a thoughtful, forceful, longstanding critic of the way the administration has prosecuted the war, while at the same time believing that success in Iraq is critical?” asked Howard Wolfson, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton and the communications director on her 2000 campaign.
Mrs. Clinton’s husband, the former President and her chief floater of trial-balloons, has also tested a slightly more anti-war position, calling the war itself “a big mistake” in a recent speech in Dubai, drawing fire from the right and praise from the left.
To the Senator, however, immediate withdrawal is the “big mistake,” and her position has drawn fire from the anti-war left and put her in a group of Senators that Marshall Wittmann, a conservative Democrat who is close to Senator John McCain, labeled “the coalition of the adults.”
“She’s a charter member,” Mr. Wittmann said of a group that also includes Mr. McCain, retired General Wesley Clark and Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who, like Mrs. Clinton, is eyeing the 2008 Presidential contest. “She has stood by her position from the very beginning. She has been critical of the administration’s prosecution of the war, but she has stood by her position that the war was right.”
New York’s junior Senator arrived in the Senate in 2001 with her husband’s legacy on Iraq policy. That included bombing the country repeatedly to enforce the settlement of the 1991 Gulf War, as well as a bipartisan resolution—inspired by many of the people who would lead the country into Iraq under President Bush—that made regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States.
By the time Mr. Bush came to the Senate for permission to go to war, Mrs. Clinton was convinced that Saddam posed a danger.
“It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which, as we know all too well, affects American security,” she said on the floor of the Senate on Oct. 10, 2002.
But the vote to give Mr. Bush the authority, she said then, was “probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make.”
She also said at the time, and has maintained since then, that she was voting not for war, but to give the President leverage to force tough weapons inspections.
“A vote for [the resolution] is not a vote to rush to war,” she said in the Senate. “It is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our President, and we say to him: Use these powers wisely, and as a last resort.”
Her hedging hasn’t prevented the Republican National Committee from using lines from her speech in a television advertisement that accuses the Democrats of switching sides on the war.
But since her speech on the Senate floor, Mrs. Clinton has gone further, saying in August of last year that had the Congress known that Saddam Hussein apparently did not possess banned weapons, “There would not have been a vote …. There would have been no basis for it.”
“I had thought that we would let the inspectors continue their work, and we might very well have found out what we later discovered, which is that they did not have weapons of mass destruction,” she said in Westchester. “But, unfortunately, the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense did not want the inspectors to finish their job.”
And at the same time, her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee has given her a regular opportunity to grill Bush administration officials on their plans, leading to tart exchanges with Mr. Rumsfeld and his former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
Mrs. Clinton has kept the broader issue of Iraq policy—stay or go?—off her public agenda, however, in favor of the details. In particular, she has dwelt on the details of soldiers’ lives, introducing legislation with Senator Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican, to expand health-care benefits to reservists and National Guard members.
But in a hardening political landscape, and with a rush away from war, Mrs. Clinton’s position on the war remains ambiguous, hard to call “pro-” or “anti-.”
To her supporters, her stance is responsible; to her critics, opportunistic.
“I think she is a political animal who believes she has to be a war hawk to keep up with the big boys,” Ms. Sheehan wrote last month on the Web site of filmmaker Michael Moore.
Mrs. Clinton’s political gamble is that those voices from the left won’t matter and that pragmatism will, in this case, trump clarity. It’s a bet that Iraq is, in a sense, another Vietnam, in which Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war message excited young voters but failed to win the nomination. And her stance is in line with the Washington wisdom about Democrats who run for President.
“The center of gravity of the Democratic Party is not there any more,” said Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, of Mrs. Clinton’s stance. “But she has to worry about it less than a lot of others, and what remains true for the country—even for people who think this war was a drastic mistake, and even for a sizeable number of those who want to get out of there—is that the Democratic Party remains in a very shaky position in regards to its reputation for being weak on national security.”