Does Sen. Clinton Have Secret Plan For War in Iraq?

Contrary to appearances, Hillary Clinton may well have a detailed, thoroughly thought-out plan for dealing with Iraq.

But she’s trying hard to keep it quiet.

With Iraq’s fledgling national unity government trying to operate against a backdrop of political chaos and spiraling sectarian violence, Mrs. Clinton’s strategy—as pieced together from her public speeches and letters—amounts to this: America should stay the course, but not at the cost of lingering for too long. Troops should start coming home this year, but enough should remain to maintain some semblance of peace for a national unity government that will have to take responsibility for Iraq’s future.

In the view of some leading members of the foreign-policy establishment, Mrs. Clinton’s political caution has left her with something that is not a long-term strategy at all.

“It’s a placeholder,” said Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It looks like she is still trying to find the comfort zone politically and in terms in of substance.”

She’s not alone by any means. Senators in both parties, from Republican Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine to Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, have struggled with the challenge of articulating cohesive ideas about what America needs to do next, all the while waiting for some dramatic changes in Baghdad or a new alternative to appear out of the ether.

But the Senator from New York is not Senator Collins or Senator Nelson. She has more than $20 million in her campaign coffers, she is coasting to re-election in New York and, whatever she says, she is the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008.

The national spotlight shines on her with a unique intensity, and it is not exactly flattering for her enigmatic position on Iraq, where 2,433 American service members have died since the start of the war and violence is an everyday affair.

“She is held to higher standard because she is the runaway front-runner,” said Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia, who believes Mrs. Clinton crafted her position to keep her options open before 2008.

“It’s ambiguous,” he said.

Take, for example, a letter Mrs. Clinton wrote to constituents on Nov. 29 in which she argued, “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.”

It’s the sort of position statement that has met with outrage on the left.

Bob Herbert wrote recently in The New York Times that “in terms of overall policy, she seems to be right there with Bush, Cheney, Condi et al.,” and liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas said in The Washington Post that “she remains behind the curve or downright incoherent on pressing issues such as the war in Iraq.”

By contrast, some of Mrs. Clinton’s colleagues in the Senate, and potential competitors in the race to the White House, have at least moved to dispel some of the haze surrounding their Iraq policy. Senator John Kerry has overcome the indecision that left him hobbled in the 2004 general election by retracting his support for the war and calling for an early withdrawal. And Senator Joseph Biden recently co-wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, with Mr. Gelb, arguing that Iraq should be decentralized into three distinct “ethno-religious” regions.

Mrs. Clinton’s aides dispute the notion that her ideas on how to fix Iraq are vague. They say that she has explicitly called for 2006 to be a year of transition, with more troops coming home and others remaining for quick-strike capabilities and intelligence work.

They also argue that her position on the Senate Armed Services Committee makes it inappropriate for Mrs. Clinton, who voted for the war, to offer a detailed blueprint of how such measures can be achieved, or what the ramifications of the withdrawal of American troops might be on Iraq’s disintegrating security situation.

According to one senior policy aide, Mrs. Clinton, who has visited Iraq twice, constantly confers with military officers, reservists and other experts.

The aides say that her position is distinct from the Bush administration’s stated policy in that she has called for a reduction of troop levels to begin this year.

(“We need to send a clear message that we are leaving,” Mrs. Clinton said during a March question-and-answer event on Long Island.)

And significantly, there is achnowledgement in Mrs. Clinton’s camp that her uniquely high political profile and influence force her to be particularly sensitive about the positions that she stakes out.

“She is trying to be thoughtful about it and is not trying to come up with a position to satisfy certain political constituencies,” said a senior policy aide to Mrs. Clinton.

But some prominent thinkers about events in Iraq say that Mrs. Clinton may not have the luxury of such pensiveness.

“I think it would be good for a politician of her stature to speak in more detail about what is going wrong,” said George Packer, the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. “It’s past time. Iraq is very close to being lost.”

And in the absence of concrete, detailed arguments from Mrs. Clinton and others, the debate of ideas over Iraq has settled into a sort of uncomfortable stasis.

“Nobody is talking about what we should do and what is it going to cost,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State who has been a fierce critic of the war. “They are just posturing.”

Of Mrs. Clinton’s position, Mr. Abramowitz said: “It’s not so distinguishable from Bush’s position.”

Mrs. Clinton has her defenders in the foreign-policy firmament.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, called Mrs. Clinton’s position “coherent” and argued that she was taking responsibility for supporting the war by helping to see it through.

But while he applauded Mrs. Clinton for broadly advocating a firm course on Iraq, he was left to some optimistic guesswork when it came to putting his finger on exactly what Mrs. Clinton planned to do in Iraq.

Referring to Congressman John Murtha, who has called for the immediate withdrawal of American troops, Mr. O’Hanlon said, “I think she is smart enough to know, trying to establish a policy where you stay a little longer than Murtha and not as long as Bush is not really the core of the issue.”

Mr. Abramowitz offered an additional reason that Mrs. Clinton might know more about what she wants to do about Iraq than she’s letting on. “She hasn’t suited up yet for her campaign,” said Mr. Abramowitz. “She’s thinking, ‘Why do I have to get out in front of this issue?’ Especially because she doesn’t know what to do any more than anyone else does.”

But laying low is hardly a viable long-term option for Mrs. Clinton, whose most fervent supporters refuse to cooperate with the storyline that she is just another Washington legislator.

Her unique situation was typified by a scene at an event on Friday afternoon in midtown, as Mrs. Clinton posed for a photograph with supporters.

“I was at your victory party, and I still have the button I wore,” said Christy Ezelle, a supporter in a red blazer, as she snapped the picture.

“Maybe you can use it next time,” said Mrs. Clinton.

“Yeah,” said Ms. Ezelle. “For President!”

The Senator, suddenly mute, smiled for the camera.

Mrs. Clinton’s hesitance on Iraq has hardly dulled that sort of enthusiasm for her among the rank and file of her party. Public polls of support for prospective Democratic Presidential candidates have consistently shown her far ahead of the rest of the field.

Still, what works in the context of a campaign is very different from what actually happens in office.

Mr. Packer offered a historical analogy, recalling that in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running for President, he spoke mysteriously about his “secret plan” for peace in Vietnam. Nixon won, but four years later, during the 1972 election, his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was still insisting, even as the war raged, that “peace is at hand.”

“It’s dangerous for candidates not to be candid in their thinking with the public, even if it seems the only way to get elected,” said Mr. Packer, who thinks that America will have Iraq on its hands for years to come. “If they aren’t, it is going to haunt them.” Does Sen. Clinton Have  Secret Plan For War in Iraq?