Saturday, February 02, 2008

When Hillary went MIA on Iraq

Kodak Center, Los Angeles, Jan 31. Round 17 on Hillary’s vote for the 2002 Iraq war resolution: poor judgment? Something to apologize for? With civility this time:

Hillary says that her vote in support of the resolution was a vote for "coercive diplomacy" to force new inspections. Obama retorts that "the legislation, the authorization had the title, an authorization to use U.S. military force...I think everybody, the day after that vote was taken, understood this was a vote potentially to go to war."

They’re both right. Hillary accurately depicted the logic behind her 2002 vote, as stated in her Senate speech on Oct. 10, 2002. In that speech, her support of the resolution was amply hedged with admonitions to seek U.N. support , try inspections first, not go to war unilaterally or preemptively. Obama is also right: the resolution authorized force, and most people assumed that Bush would resort to force.

But debate over whether Clinton supported Bush’s rush to war should focus not on the moment of her vote but on the absence of significant moments in the months following. The fault is not in the course she set in the Oct. 10, 2002 speech but in her failure to speak out forcefully for that course later.

The speech itself was her finest moment in the run-up to war. It sheds a favorable light on how she would approach international flashpoints as President. She was plainly trying to steer a course between enabling Saddam and enabling Bush, and she did it with precision:

Even though the resolution before the Senate is not as strong as I would like in requiring the diplomatic route first and placing highest priority on a simple, clear requirement for unlimited inspections, I will take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible.

Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely, and therefore, war less likely, and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation. If we were to defeat this resolution or pass it with only a few Democrats, I am concerned that those who want to pretend this problem will go way with delay will oppose any UN resolution calling for unrestricted inspections.

So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation. A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war; 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. And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein - this is your last chance - disarm or be disarmed.

In ensuing months, Hillary did speak occasionally – briefly and weakly – against a rush to war. On November 20, she told Chris Matthews, “"To talk all the time like you're inviting war , anxious to go to war, does a great disservice to the country" and warned that the Bush Administration “had some old scores to settle” in Iraq. She piped up in the same vein on February 7, 2003, when, according to the Irish Times, she told an Irish TV interviewer that she is against precipitous action in a war on Iraq” and “would prefer to see more time given to the UN weapons inspectors before any action was considered.”

But she never again got her Irish up in America until it was too late. As war became imminent, she hedged. On March 2, Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said that "Sen. Clinton fully supports the steps the president has taken to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction." Emphasis still on disarmament, but at a point when it was plain that Bush would not “allow inspections to work.” Next day, according to the Washington Times, Clinton “said she supports using force to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, though she said inspections would be better than war if they can work. ‘It is preferable that we do this in a peaceful manner through coercive inspection ... but if it's just more of the same equivocation and prevarication we've had from him before, at some point we have to be willing to uphold the United Nations resolutions.’" Big if…A few days later, she met with the antiwar group Code Pink and told them, "I admire your willingness to speak out on behalf of women and children in Iraq . The only way to change this is for Saddam Hussein to disarm, and I don't think he will. We are in a very difficult position right now. I'd love to agree with you, but I can't."

On March 17, in a statement in response to the President's address preparing the nation for war, Hillary rallied round:
Tonight, the President gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to avoid war, and the world hopes that Saddam Hussein will finally hear this ultimatum, understand the severity of those words, and act accordingly. While we wish there were more international support for the effort to disarm Saddam Hussein, at this critical juncture it is important for all of us to come together in support of our troops and pray that, if war does occur, this mission is accomplished swiftly and decisively with minimum loss of life and civilian casualties.

Finally, on the eve of war, the Daily News reported on March 20, 2003:

Sen. Hillary Clinton wishes President Bush had lined up more nations in his "coalition of the willing" against Iraq - but she won't second-guess him as war approaches.

, outspoken on major issues such as homeland security, defended her near-silence yesterday over Bush's failed diplomatic efforts to rally UN backing to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by force. "I think everybody wishes we had more international support for this action," Clinton said in an interview.

But, she added, "I don't think it's useful now to go back and Monday morning quarterback."

Okay, but what happened to the quarterback rush in the four months prior?

Hillary was nothing if not consistent. Unfortunately, she was consistent in being gulled and pulled along by Bush. She was like a parent who sets clear limits but refuses to crack down when her child crosses them. She never drew the line and said, “inspections are working, there’s no evidence that Saddam has WMD, it’s wrong to go to war now.” The true failure was not on the knife’s edge of a Senate vote, but over the months following. It was a failure of nerve, not judgment.

Postscript: the archive of statements and releases on Hillary's Senate website includes only three items between October 10, 2002 and March 20, 2003 that focus on Iraq. On March 17, as noted above, she rallied round the flag. On Feb. 4, there's notice of a joint Clinton-Levin letter sent to Colin Powell on Jan. 31, urging a U.N. resolution authorizing U-2 flights over Iraq and increaed intelligence support of the U.N. inspectors. On Jan. 28, in a response in advance of the State of the Union address, Hillary said, "The President has begun to make the case for why the use of force may be necessary, and it is important that he do that. I look forward to hearing what he will say this evening and what Secretary Powell will have to say in the following days."


  1. Hillary lost me with the war vote-- I remember how hopeless I felt in 2002 when the Democrats went along with Bush. I always believed that her decision was politically motivated, but felt that I didn't have enough information to know for sure. Thank you for posting her own words on this issue, which made me realize that her decision process was more nuanced than I realized, but ultimately still about winning a presidential election. Looking at the map of the states and the delegate counts last night, it finally dawned on me why she chose to be a NY senator and how long she's been strategizing for this election.
    Thank you for all of your excellent posts.