Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hillary's Iraq Vote; or, A Brief for Political Courage
Just from an armchair perspective, it's fascinating to watch the Clinton campaign try to square the circle of their candidate's vote in favor of authorizing military force against Iraq in 2002. Five years later, the main theoretical question left about the war is whether it's the very worst foreign policy blunder in American history, or merely among the worst, and the most important practical question is how to minimize the consequences of the tragic mistake. Some of those who voted for the war then repented of it later, most prominently John Edwards among current Democratic presidential hopefuls. Senator Clinton, though, has refused to "apologize," or even clearly and loudly say "I made a mistake."

And she's now trying to present this stubbornness as an act of political courage:

Several advisers, friends and donors said in interviews that they had urged her to call her vote a mistake in order to appease antiwar Democrats, who play a critical role in the nominating process. Yet Mrs. Clinton herself, backed by another faction, never wanted to apologize — even if she viewed the war as a mistake — arguing that an apology would be a gimmick.

In the end, she settled on language that was similar to Senator John Kerry’s when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004: that if she had known in 2002 what she knows now about Iraqi weaponry, she would never have voted for the Senate resolution authorizing force.

Yet antiwar anger has festered, and yesterday morning Mrs. Clinton rolled out a new response to those demanding contrition: She said she was willing to lose support from voters rather than make an apology she did not believe in.

“If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from,” Mrs. Clinton told an audience in Dover, N.H., in a veiled reference to two rivals for the nomination, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

There was a place and a moment, of course, for the Senator to show political courage. But it wasn't New Hampshire in February 2007; it was Washington, DC, in October 2002.

Twenty-three Senators--21 Democrats, a lone Republican (Chafee), and an independent (Jeffords) showed their courage that day. In a vote three weeks before a close election, with the mainstream media beating the war drums so loudly that even the best-grounded, most credible skeptical views couldn't get a hearing, they voted against going to war. Among them were four Democrats who were up for re-election the following month: three of them--Durbin, Levin, and Jack Reed--won easily, and the fourth, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, was pulling away when he tragically died in a plane crash two weeks after voting against the war.

By contrast, you had Hillary Clinton, more than four years from having to face the voters again, but representing a state where the emotional echoes of September 11 were still deafening. She voted to give Bush authorization to use force, evidently hoping against all evidence that he would brandish this authorization for diplomatic leverage rather than to directly send Americans into harm's way. She wanted to set out a middle course--shocking, I know--between immediate, pre-emptive attack and indefinitely waiting for the diplomatic process to play out. (Read her speech and see for yourself.)

Senator Clinton's thought process, as she details it in the speech, actually shows both her strengths and weaknesses. She takes into account a number of relevant factors: Saddam Hussein's history of defying the UN, America's own degree of culpability for his crimes (arming him in the 1980s and shrugging off his massacres of the Kurds, then standing aside as he had thousands of rebelling Shi'ites and Kurds killed in 1991), her own views on the great power of the executive to use force, formed during her husband's tenure in the White House, and, by her own admission, the emotional resonance of representing New York 11 months after the devastating and traumatic attack:

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.

What's missing is any consideration of the particulars of the case against Saddam, or even healthy skepticism that the collection of ideologues within the administration might have a thumb on the scale.

And the political calculation is pretty clearly there as well. I don't know if she'd already resolved to run for president in two or six or ten years' time, but it's hard to believe the thought hadn't crossed her mind--as well as the idea, probably justified at the time, that voting against use of force would ensure that she'd never host meetings in the the Oval Office.

I believe that the Clintons, and the wing of the Democratic Party that they lead, have a predisposition toward using force. It's politically rational--and it's deeply immoral.

Like many of the "New Democrats"--and no small number of Bush/Rove/DeLay-generation Republicans--neither Clinton ever served in the military and both came of age politically in a period when Democrats were successfully portrayed as “weak,” they are terrified of living into that stereotype. With no personal experience of war-–hell, probably few if any close friends who were ever in combat-–to balance against that political calculation, combat is theoretical to them. The primary concern is political; the primary means are symbolic.

It’s no coincidence that many of those who have been most skeptical about the Iraq debacle from the outset were individuals who themselves had served. For the Clintons, the Bushes and everyone else who constructs “patriotism” as the whole of symbolic parts-–a flag pin in a suit lapel-–what's most at stake, at the moment of decision, is the next news cycle and earning some credit for “political bravery” from out-of-touch DC-based fools like David Broder and David Brooks.

Not everyone bought the war hype. Here is one speech from a state senator, given just two weeks after Hillary Clinton and 76 others in the US Senate put the gun in George W. Bush's hand:

I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.... The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors...and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

That state senator was Barack Obama. Sometimes political courage does pay off.

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