Twice since Bill and Hillary made their way onto the national stage has the United States been involved in a major war. And both times, both Clintons have spoken out of both sides of their mouths.
Hillary Clinton, of course, voted to authorize war with Iraq back in October 2002, after taking to the Senate floor and warning that Saddam Hussein had to “disarm or be disarmed.” At the same time, she rejected an alternative resolution authored by Michigan’s Carl Levin that would have required President Bush to seek international support for an invasion and to return to Congress if he failed to do so.
Back in those days, when the idea of war was politically popular and when most Americans saw an invasion of Iraq as a way of finishing what was started in the relatively seamless and painless Gulf War of 1991, Hillary won praise for showing “presidential” toughness and for casting a vote that would preserve—if not enhance—her White House ambitions. But then the disastrous occupation rendered support for the war politically toxic within the Democratic Party. So she changed her story.
“My vote was not a vote for pre-emptive war,” Hillary insisted on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” only the latest time she’s made this assertion.
The war authorization vote in 2002, she contends, was merely designed to provide more leverage for international inspectors to gain access to Iraq. And she never, ever expected President Bush to launch the war unless the inspectors finished their job and provided a full accounting of what weaponry Saddam did and did not possess.
“When we were moving toward the preemptive war that George Bush decided to wage…we were getting information, finally, that would give us a basis for knowing,” Hillary said on Sunday. “I believe if the inspectors had been allowed to do their work, we would’ve learned that what Saddam Hussein had constructed was a charade.”
Even if you accept the idea that Clinton—despite heaps of evidence to the contrary at the time—really didn’t think the Bush administration was hell-bent on war in 2002, her story still doesn’t add up. The problem: In the weeks and days before the war began in March 2003, when it was obvious that Bush would ignore Hillary’s beloved inspectors and launch the war anyway, she was silent.
On the eve of the war, a New York newspaper surveyed the state’s Democratic Congressional delegation. 11 of them said that Bush had failed to make the case for war. Seven of them said that he had. Clinton refused to answer.
You would think that she would have been irate—and frantic to stop a war that she hadn’t voted to authorize. After all, according to her new narrative, she only voted for the resolution so that inspectors could do their work. And here was the President, thumbing his nose at those inspectors and using the authorization vote to plunge the country into war. But she uttered not a peep, and the invasion commenced.
Her disingenuousness on Iraq is doubly galling in light of her effort to portray Barack Obama as a vacillator who is afraid to take stands on politically sensitive subjects.
“You know,” she said on “Meet the Press,” “Senator Obama voted present 130 times in the state Senate. When you’re President, you can’t vote present. You have to make a decision.”
Apparently, she holds herself to a different standard—unless there’s another way to explain why she fell mute as President Bush took the country to war, and only months and years later began claiming he had done so under false pretenses.
Hillary’s vote for the war, and her refusal to answer questions about it for months afterwards, is a classic Clinton ploy. In her Senate floor speech in ‘02, she left just enough loopholes—for instance, talking up the role of weapons inspectors—to allow herself to rewrite history years later, if it proved politically necessary to distance herself from her “yes” vote.
Her husband played the exact same game during his first presidential bid. From the fall of 1990, when then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton began wiggling out of a campaign pledge not to seek the presidency, it was clear that he would be a White House aspirant in 1992.
So, naturally, reporters were anxious to learn in January 1991 what he made of the impending Gulf War. Congress was debating whether to give the first President Bush authority to take military action, and the vote was going to be close—much closer than the ‘02 vote would be.
But Bill Clinton ducked the questions until finally, literally on the eve of the invasion, he was cornered by a reporter from a small regional paper in Arkansas.
“I guess I would have voted with the majority (for the war) if it was a close vote,” Bill Clinton said. “But I agreed with the arguments made by the minority.”
But when that war was over and judged a rousing success, he changed his tune, just like his wife has changed hers. Suddenly, Bull Clinton began boasting that he’d backed the war from the beginning—trying to score points against his Democratic rivals, who had opposed it.
It may be a different time and place now, but for the Clintons, the game is still the same.