Of all of the many reasons to support a Democrat for President of the U.S. in 2008, one of the most vital is to start to bring to a close the reckless bloodbath that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and friends opened up in Iraq. From the safety of our homes we only know the starkest hints, the remote and officially released surfaces of the ongoing violence, the toll on American soldiers, the millions of Iraqi refugees, and the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed as a result of this course of action. But there should no doubt that the course of this war has taken a terrible, terrible toll.
Ending the war in Iraq will be difficult. Even if we achieve an entirely united and single-minded White House and Congress (which isn’t likely), the foreign policy chess game that will need to be played to get our troops out and hopefully restore some stability in the region is going to be extremely tough. Bosnia and Kosovo will prove to have been a much simpler challenge in historic hindsight. The logistic aspect of drawing down troops and removing civilians without permitting chaotic insurgency to explode and destroy those evacuating will be daunting. And as Senator Joe Biden pointed out several times during his appearances as a Presidential candidate, we will accomplish the wrong thing now if we withdraw irresponsibly and leave a power-vacuum which ends up requiring further and perhaps even more intractable military involvement a decade from now. America cannot simply walk away and pretend Iraq never happened. This is not a simple matter, as much as the bring-them-home-now activists want it to be.
The 2006 congressional elections gave Democrats only the slightest majority in Congress – not enough to override a Presidential veto. If Democrats en masse decided to force their hand by simply cutting off purse strings, let’s be honest: most of them would not be re-elected because there is nothing so spinnable as the apparent treason of refusing to support American troops in harm’s way with adequate funding (never mind that the Rumsfeld model set them up from the start with too few troops, too little equipment and no plan to stabilize the conquered nation). Such a course would set back Democratic party chances and also ensure that the next congress was hawkish enough to wage even more war.
The worst possible outcome of the 2008 election is that we see another militarist Republican in the White House. But this election will not be a cakewalk. While Bush disapproval is high, opinions on matters of security can swing quickly; right now 33% of Americans still believe that Bush is doing a good job. Presumably they all want to stay the course in Iraq and if they haven’t changed their minds by now they never will. So it would only take one-fourth of those currently disapproving to be swayed in the general election into supporting a McCain doctrine or similar, and we’ll be back at a 50/50 split on the war. Also note that it is not only Democrats who are turning out to primaries in record numbers; Republicans are also. I have liberal friends who are incredulous that Democrats could lose in 2008, but the same friends never believed that Bush II would ever occupy the White House, and they were certain that his jig was up in 2004.
For this reason, it was and is alarming to me to see Senator Barack Obama systematically attempt to lay responsibility for the war at the feet of an esteemed fellow Democrat, Senator Hillary Clinton. That was his first explicit talking point against her and it is the one he has reiterated most throughout this campaign, doing so again in last night’s CNN debate in Hollywood. It is irresponsible not only because it mischaracterizes Senator Clinton’s position on the war and on foreign policy; it is also irresponsible because, like so many reiterated inaccurate attacks, it has the potential to weaken a fellow Democrat in the general election against a Republican and even weaken her with her own Democratic base (which is of course his aim – a winner-take-all gamble within the Democratic Party, heedless of what might happen if it works in suppressing her support, but not enough to win him the nomination).
To set the record straight let us look – and not merely glance – at the events that led up to the Iraq war, how the nation overall responded to the administration’s case for war and strong diplomacy, and specifically at Clinton’s actions and attempts to sway policy in the Senate at the time. We should then see whether Obama was right to call her “Bush/Cheney Lite” or whether indeed that was a cheap shot at a strong progressive woman who was in fact using what influence she had to try and achieve a better outcome at the time.
We all remember what happened on September 11, 2001. One year later, the United States was at war in Afghanistan and still looking for the mastermind of the attacks on the World Trade Center. President Bush had commemorated the first official Patriot Day on December 11, 2002. For most of the year Bush’s job approval had been at or above 70% – an extremely high rating. We can point fingers all we want now, but the will of a large majority of the American people was with George W. Bush and the direction he was setting, including a military response to terrorism and other security threats.
On Iraq there was more dissent and a variety of possible courses and opinions. Before its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had been known to use chemical warfare against Iran and against its own people. Many of these destructive weapons were discovered during the first gulf war, and some have reportedly been discovered since; a condition of the peace was that UN inspectors would be able to ensure that Iraq was not starting new weapons programs, but Iraq had balked and kicked the inspectors out. Of course with the threat of global terrorism made absolutely vivid to the US on September 11, the idea of these weapons being in the hands of a nation hostile to the U.S., and possibly getting into terrorist hands (directly, via the black market, etc.), was a serious one.
There were voices even then urging that Iraq had nothing to do with September 11 and that war was not justified. Some of these voices (mine included) even pointed out that the U.S. had essentially propped up the Hussein regime as a counter to Iran and possibly even helped it obtain some of those weapons initially. Many predicted that full-scale war in Iraq would lead to chaos (Dick Cheney had even argued this in the 1992). But such voices did not prevail in 2002 against the climate of public and political opinion; not just most leaders but most Americans agreed they would rather be safe than sorry on Iraq WMD’s. Into this arena there comes some troubling intelligence. First, there seems to be evidence that Iraq has in fact resumed weapons programs. Second, there may be evidence that Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear fuel. Finally, there was a suggestion that Iraq had harbored terrorists, possibly including some related to Al-Qaeda (though not specifically related to the September 11 attacks). With this evidence – assuming, of course that it was true – the course of some action against Iraq became inevitable, whether that course simply involved forcible inspections, tighter coordination with the UN and allies, etc.
I’m describing all this again so that we can re-conjure the mindset of the times. It is not an issue of opinion polls, but of the mindset of the body politic in America, the frame in which decisions were made and alternatives were proposed. This was not a black-and-white issue and even the authorization itself was not proposed as such; anyone who pretends it could have been is not intellectually honest. September 11 and the Iraq WMD intelligence had a huge affect on how we thought about the security of our nation and the future at that moment. There were many asking valuable questions, and some looking deeply into the intelligence estimates and seeing if they were credible – people like Joseph Wilson – but for the most part this dilemma of a re-arming Iraq was the “reality” that we were all confronted with, and which we expected the federal government to address. And let us note that Barack Obama was not, at the time, a part of that government; as he himself admitted, he did not receive those briefings, he did not hear the debates in Washington, he did not have the luxury of voting one way or the other, or skipping the vote. And how ever much he cares to revise or explain away his own words, he very clearly stated in 2004 that he did not know how he would have voted, only that from his perspective (which was the perspective of State Legislature in Illinois) the “case was not made.” Of course I don’t think the NIE has ever gone to the Illinois State Legislature to make its case.
Hillary Clinton was a part of that government in 2002. It was the close of her second year as a U.S. Senator. So how did Hillary approach the issue? There is no need to conjecture on what she was thinking or what she would have done because we have her own words from the senate floor.
First, we have to note that she, like most concerned with security issues in the Senate, accepted the intelligence at the time; it was the frame of the discussion. We’re now faced with a lot of wolf-crying over the deception, but what if it had all been true, if Iraq had in fact been rebuilding these weapons – what would the correct course have been? This is exactly what Hillary asked at the time:
In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.
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.
Now this much is undisputed. The open questions are: what should we do about it? How, when, and with whom?
What would Barack Obama have done if he were really on the Senate floor at the time? He has suggested that he might unilaterally invade Pakistan if he had intelligence on where Al Qaeda was. I do not think it unreasonable to assume that he also would have supported the resolution just as John Edwards did. However, back to Hilllary; what did she recommend? First, she laid out some options:
Some people favor attacking Saddam Hussein now, with any allies we can muster, in the belief that one more round of weapons inspections would not produce the required disarmament, and that deposing Saddam would be a positive good for the Iraqi people and would create the possibility of a secular democratic state in the Middle East, one which could perhaps move the entire region toward democratic reform.
This view has appeal to some, because it would assure disarmament; because it would right old wrongs after our abandonment of the Shiites and Kurds in 1991, and our support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s when he was using chemical weapons and terrorizing his people; and because it would give the Iraqi people a chance to build a future in freedom.
However, this course is fraught with danger. We and our NATO allies did not depose Mr. Milosevic, who was responsible for more than a quarter of a million people being killed in the 1990s. Instead, by stopping his aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, and keeping on the tough sanctions, we created the conditions in which his own people threw him out and led to his being in the dock being tried for war crimes as we speak.
If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us. In recent days, Russia has talked of an invasion of Georgia to attack Chechen rebels. India has mentioned the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan. And what if China were to perceive a threat from Taiwan?
So Mr. President, for all its appeal, a unilateral attack, while it cannot be ruled out, on the present facts is not a good option.
I would like everyone who has bought the lie that Senator Clinton is “Bush/Cheney Lite” to re-read the preceding paragraph. Better yet, memorize it. This is not the voice of a Senator who is propping up the reckless course of the Bush administration and gleefully rushing to war; nor is it the voice of a Senator who is simply ignoring real potential security threats and sticking her head in the ideological sand. She goes on to explore another avenue, relying on the lead of the United Nations:
Others argue that we should work through the United Nations and should only resort to force if and when the United Nations Security Council approves it. This too has great appeal for different reasons. The UN deserves our support. Whenever possible we should work through it and strengthen it, for it enables the world to share the risks and burdens of global security and when it acts, it confers a legitimacy that increases the likelihood of long-term success. The UN can help lead the world into a new era of global cooperation and the United States should support that goal.
But there are problems with this approach as well. The United Nations is an organization that is still growing and maturing. It often lacks the cohesion to enforce its own mandates. And when Security Council members use the veto, on occasion, for reasons of narrow-minded interests, it cannot act. In Kosovo, the Russians did not approve NATO military action because of political, ethnic, and religious ties to the Serbs. The United States therefore could not obtain a Security Council resolution in favor of the action necessary to stop the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of more than a million Kosovar Albanians. However, most of the world was with us because there was a genuine emergency with thousands dead and a million driven from their homes. As soon as the American-led conflict was over, Russia joined the peacekeeping effort that is still underway.
In the case of Iraq, recent comments indicate that one or two Security Council members might never approve force against Saddam Hussein until he has actually used chemical, biological, or God forbid, nuclear weapons.
So what, in that scenario in 2002, was the answer? Senator Clinton goes on to acknowledge that it is a “thorny dilemma”, and…
…while people of good faith and high intelligence can reach diametrically opposed conclusions, I believe the best course is to go to the UN for a strong resolution that scraps the 1998 restrictions on inspections and calls for complete, unlimited inspections with cooperation expected and demanded from Iraq. I know that the Administration wants more, including an explicit authorization to use force, but we may not be able to secure that now, perhaps even later. But if we get a clear requirement for unfettered inspections, I believe the authority to use force to enforce that mandate is inherent in the original 1991 UN resolution…
She further asserts, “I believe international support and legitimacy are crucial. After shots are fired and bombs are dropped, not all consequences are predictable.” She goes on to discuss her position on the vote for the authorization of force. She references President Bush’s earlier speech in Cincinnati – a speech which she claims has reassured her and made her vote easier. Why? Because Bush promised he would not do what he in fact ended up doing. Here was Bush’s promise:
I have asked Congress to authorize the use of America’s military, if it proves necessary, to enforce U.N. Security Council demands. Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable. The resolution will tell the United Nations, and all nations, that America speaks with one voice and is determined to make the demands of the civilized world mean something. Congress will also be sending a message to the dictator in Iraq: that his only chance – his only choice is full compliance, and the time remaining for that choice is limited.
Again, those that want to blame Hillary for this war, please re-read that paragraph. Those words were President Bush’s contract with the Congress, and with the American people, on the eve of that vote.
I’m going to include now most of the rest of Hillary’s statement on the day she cast her vote for what was to become authorization for war, a war hijacked by a reckless White House. Emphases are mine.
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.
This is a very difficult vote. This is probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make – any vote that may lead to war should be hard – but I cast it with conviction.
And perhaps my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our nation. I want this President, or any future President, to be in the strongest possible position to lead our country in the United Nations or in war. Secondly, I want to insure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and for our support for the President’s efforts to wage America’s war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. And thirdly, I want the men and women in our Armed Forces to know that if they should be called upon to act against Iraq, our country will stand resolutely behind them.
My vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of pre-emption, or for uni-lateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose – all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of international law and for the peace and security of people throughout the world.
Over eleven years have passed since the UN called on Saddam Hussein to rid himself of weapons of mass destruction as a condition of returning to the world community. Time and time again he has frustrated and denied these conditions. This matter cannot be left hanging forever with consequences we would all live to regret. War can yet be avoided, but our responsibility to global security and to the integrity of United Nations resolutions protecting it cannot. I urge the President to spare no effort to secure a clear, unambiguous demand by the United Nations for unlimited inspections.
And finally, on another personal note, I come to this decision from the perspective of a Senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year’s terrible attacks on our nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.
Hillary’s action on this issue did not end there. As she noted in last night’s debate, she joined with Senator Byrd the very next day in proposing legislation to ensure that the President would keep his promise to follow up with the UN, and set a one-year limitation on the duration of the use-of-force authorization – a proposal which John Edwards opposed, joining the ranks of the Republicans, Joe Lieberman, and a few other Democrats.
With that I rest my case on this issue and you can decide whether you agree, with Barack Obama, that Hillary Clinton is “Bush/Cheney Lite” or whether she may in fact be a great and principled Democratic Senator who acted with conviction, with reason, and in good faith in the best interests of her country – interests that were betrayed by a rogue White House administration, but which were in themselves the manifestation of sound judgment. My conclusion: the person who made these statements, and not the person who cynically has tried to denounce her for them, is the person best qualified to lead this nation in 2009 and beyond.