It’s important to consider Hillary Clinton’s recent comments on Iraq in the larger context of her Iraq rhetoric over the past five years. There’s a widely held contention among Republicans that, while Hillary may be disastrous on any number of issues, she understands what’s at stake in America’s fight against terrorism. All her withdrawal talk, so this theory goes, is nothing but an attempt to pander to Democratic voters. Compared to Barack Obama, Hillary “at least” knows that we need to fight.
But is Hillary genuinely against pressing on in Iraq or is she privately for it? The biggest challenge in answering this comes from the premise of the question itself. It assumes Hillary has a conviction about the war one way or the other. From her statements about Iraq, it’s plain as day she’s merely trying to negotiate the shifting waves of public opinion–not to act in accordance with principle.
Before Hillary signed on to the “George Bush’s war” movement, she was among the most outspoken proponents of forceful regime change in Iraq. The public support for the war was overwhelming, and Hillary wasn’t about to stand in opposition.
Hillary often talks about how her vote to support the war was the hardest decision she’s ever had to make. But in truth she didn’t even read the 2003 NIE (suspect as it was) challenging the administration’s assertions about Saddam and WMD. In the run-up to the war Hillary said
It is clear . . . 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.
And on Iraq’s terrorist ties: “Saddam has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members.”
When public opinion started to sour, Hillary dutifully followed. She started her (still-ongoing) campaign of double-talk meant to court public favor while leaving open the possibility of attaching herself to a future victory in Iraq. In late 2005, she said that we couldn’t withdraw immediately and we couldn’t stay forever. Not exactly the conviction of two years earlier. In time, that fifty-fifty split tipped with the further decline in public support for Iraq, so that by June of 2007 the whole bloody mess was “George Bush’s war.”
But just as she had decided that a full disowning of the war was in order, it became clear that the troop surge started to show some real results. Moreover, there was a correlative renewal of public confidence, and Hillary had to respond. In one of her most ridiculous attempts to walk back in from the ledge, she declared in August of 2007:
It’s working. We’re just years too late in our tactics . . . We can’t be fighting the last war. We have to keep preparing to fight the new war. . . I think the best way of honoring [U.S. troops'] service is bringing them home.
So, we’re winning–but the timing is off. And it was: Hillary’s renunciation was to supposed to coincide with defeat. The preposterous disconnect between her rhetoric and reality grew out of the fact that Hillary was reading trends, while the military had been trying to beat the enemy.
Now, the surge has not only continued to root out and kill the enemies of a free Iraq, but genuine political progress is being made. Still murky on how this will play out in the court of public opinion, Hillary wants to have it both ways. Last night, in her interview with Bill O’Reilly, she said
I believe that our military has fulfilled all their military missions . . .There’s no doubt in my mind. They got rid of Saddam Hussein, which they were asked to do. They gave the Iraqis free and fair elections. They gave the Iraqi government the space and time to make the decisions that only the Iraqis can make for themselves . . . There is no military solution to what we face in Iraq, which is unprecedented. It is dangerous, it is unstable.
Mission, umm, fulfilled? This is more rhetorical sleight-of-hand intended to gloss over the chasm between what is really happening in Iraq and what Hillary thinks she needs to claim is happening. In this last move, Hillary has gone from saying “we can win, but why bother,” to “we have won, but so what?” There is nothing reassuring about her failed articulations on Iraq. She doesn’t believe in the war and she doesn’t not believe in the war. She practices a weather-vane national security approach. “At least” Obama is for troop withdrawal. He’s wrong. But he’s made a decision.