The speech Hillary should give

I voted for the Iraq war to save my political skin. I can no longer lie to myself, or the American people, about the most important issue of our time.

Published February 27, 2007 1:40PM (EST)

My fellow Americans.

As is widely known, I have been under intense pressure to apologize for my vote authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq. While I have become increasingly critical of his conduct of the war, and have proposed capping the number of new troops that can be sent there, I have refused to apologize.

But I have reconsidered. I have decided that my current position is not only politically unwise, but so dishonest, so contrary to my deepest beliefs, that I can no longer maintain it.

I do not come to this decision lightly. Like all politicians, I have to balance political realities against idealism. I've taken a lot of heat for being too pragmatic, too cold, too calculating. I have always rejected this critique because I know the risks I've taken, the principles I hold dear and how hard it is to achieve anything in the real political world. It galls me that so many people see me as some kind of Lady Macbeth, when I have been a feminist, a fighter for social justice, and a strong, powerful and independent first lady. In my small way, I hope that I played a role in the continuing evolution of women in American public life.

These are the things I am most proud of. They are the reasons I got into politics in the first place. They are who I am.

So I don't apologize for the many compromises I've made in my life. I have made those compromises because I believed I needed to in order to win on more important issues.

But after reflection, I have come to understand that on this subject, the harsh criticism I have received is justified.

I now see that my -- quite legitimate -- political concerns have led me to betray my core beliefs. On the most important issue of our time, I cannot continue to publicly mouth a position I don't believe in. I have fought too hard to win power to find myself an empty shell now that I have it. And the direction Bush and Cheney have taken the country is too appalling to go along with.

To be perfectly honest, I also have come to realize that my current position is politically untenable. I thought that I was aligning myself with the great moderate center of America. But on Iraq, that center has moved to the left, leaving me badly out of step not just with most of my party but with independents and swing voters.

Besides, I don't want to spend the next 18 months having food fights with Barack Obama over David Geffen.

I know that I will be called a flip-flopper for changing my position. I know the right wing will call me a liberal, a wimp, not strong enough to lead America in a dangerous world. And I know that my gender will be used against me. But I will be attacked no matter what I do. So I have decided to tell the truth as I see it.

Until now, I have been saying, "If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for it." That is a pathetic evasion. So let me say it clearly and forthrightly. I was wrong to vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq. Like most of my blue-state Democratic colleagues, I voted for the war out of cowardice, for purely self-serving political reasons. I didn't want to appear "soft on terrorism." I knew I was giving an incompetent president surrounded by ideologues with dubious motivations carte blanche to launch an unjustified and incredibly risky war. And I did it to save my own political skin.

Moreover, I knew I was wrong even as I did it. It was the greatest mistake of my life, and I will never stop regretting it. I will feel to my last breath that I bear some share of responsibility for an unjustified war that has become America's greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, and has needlessly cost the lives of more than 3,000 American troops and as many as 700,000 Iraqis.

My vote is an albatross around my neck now, but I want to remind people that it made a lot of political sense at the time. Karl Rove, Fox News and their ilk were successfully smearing everyone who stepped out of line as a traitor and an appeaser. Bush's approval ratings were sky-high. The media had completely rolled over. The New York Times was docilely printing administration lies about scary aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds. The Washington Post, the bible of the Beltway, was banging the drums loudly for war. (I'm not making excuses, but those of you who don't live in D.C. don't understand how insular and distorted it is here in the bubble. We begin to think that what David Broder writes reflects reality.) The foreign policy establishment was mostly on board. Many of my Democratic colleagues were voting for the war too, so there was a lot of tall grass to hide in.

But mainly, I was scared. I was terrified of getting too far away from the American mainstream. My greatest fear was that I'd be seen as weak. Most Americans were still traumatized and angry about 9/11. They didn't know anything about Iraq -- thanks to Bush propaganda, in September 2002, 51 percent of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11 -- and they were prepared to support anything the president proposed. A reflexive, ignorant, fearful "war on terror" mind-set was rampaging. I was afraid the American people would turn on me if I fought them on this one. I'm a Democrat, a woman and a Clinton -- I had three strikes against me on "national security" before I even got to the plate.

So I decided to tack right. The only loud opposition to the war came from liberals, and I assumed they'd vote for me anyway. That was my thinking. It was totally Machiavellian.

Contrary to what I have publicly maintained, I knew that the administration had not made the case that Iraq posed such an imminent threat that war was justified. Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction appeared somewhat compelling at the time -- although we now know that it was a tissue of fabrications, half-truths and distortions -- but even then it fell far below the level of proof needed to justify starting a war. The truth is that we didn't know whether Saddam had WMD. Moreover, even if we assumed he did, there was no reason to believe that he was going to use them against the United States. His entire history showed him to be a Stalinist thug obsessed with his own power and survival, not an ideologue who would decide to launch or sponsor a suicidal attack against a superpower. That's why we sent Donald Rumsfeld to shake hands with him in 1983. That's why we happily allowed him to use weapons of mass destruction against Iran. He was just a two-bit regional thug we used to fight what we perceived to be a bigger threat.

Besides, I never believed anything the Bush administration said about Iraq anyway. If staunch Republican loyalists like Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell and James Baker knew what was going on, not to mention millions of Americans, you think I didn't? Everybody knew that Bush was surrounded by hard-line neocons and far-right hawks who had been planning to take out Saddam for years. It wasn't exactly a secret that Bush's Mideast policy was identical to that proposed by the Project for a New American Century, that unholy alliance of power-mad Cold Warriors like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, Christian Zionists and neocons like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol and Lewis Libby -- the people Colin Powell called "the JINSA crowd." These guys wanted to play Risk with the Middle East -- for U.S. hegemony, for Israel, for oil, and to show we could. They thought if we flexed our big muscles and slapped around some evil ragheads we could end terrorism, remake the region, inspire democracy, and put a chicken in every pot. This was no secret. Both in the Project for a New American Century documents and in their National Security Strategy, the neocons and über-hawks who planned the war laid out their plans for all to see.

When you vote to go to war, you have to consider who's going to be waging it and why. It wasn't just a matter of voting for a war to remove an evil dictator who might conceivably pose a threat to the U.S. someday -- the most benign interpretation one can put on the motivations for war, and not the entire truth by a long shot. It was voting for a war that we knew was going to be prosecuted by the Bush administration.

That administration was about as incompetent, ideologically driven, manipulative and corrupt as you can get. We all knew Bush and Rove had decided that war was good for them politically. That's why they engineered the Iraq vote the way they did. They screwed us royally. It was "vote for the war or be Neville Chamberlain." It was "sign off on bombing Baghdad or enjoy the rest of your political life as Tokyo Rose." These guys take no prisoners -- look at what Cheney and Libby did to Joe Wilson. They're good, I have to give them that.

Of course I knew that launching an unprovoked war against an Arab country in the heart of the Middle East was incredibly risky and could go dreadfully wrong. None of these things -- the neocons' agenda, the hawks' quest for global dominance, Rove's thuggish tactics, the enormous risk -- were a secret. Some of my colleagues in Congress spoke eloquently about these things, and plenty of journalists wrote about them well before the war.

But frankly, the risks were down the road, and they meant less to me than the immediate risk voting against Bush posed to my political career.

So I acknowledge that voting to authorize war was a catastrophic mistake. (I also want to recant my ridiculous attempt to claim that I didn't believe I was voting for an actual war, just for the threat of one. Everybody knew Bush had made up his mind to attack.) But merely saying it was a mistake is not enough. Why was the war a mistake? If we don't fully address that question, we're in danger of learning nothing from this debacle.

Invading Iraq wasn't just a mistake because there turned out not to be any WMD. Even if there had been, we'd still be in exactly the same mess we're in today. Nor was it a mistake because it was a good idea that Bush executed badly. Yes, it is theoretically possible that the war could have turned out better if we had gone in with 400,000 troops and a genuine international coalition, if we had not disbanded the Iraqi army, immediately provided better security, limited our purge of Baath Party members, aggressively practiced regional diplomacy, made a real effort to resolve the crucial Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not filled the Green Zone with incompetent party hacks, actually planned for the aftermath, and so on. But it is more likely that even then our invasion would have opened a Pandora's box. In any case, such conjectures are counterfactual, and it is intellectually irresponsible to cling to them in the face of the grim reality.

No, the mistake was going to war against Iraq in the first place. Here's why.

First, we went to war utterly cavalierly. The Bush administration acted as if war was just another tool that we could casually use to achieve desired ends. This is outrageous. Our "preventive" war on Iraq -- of course, it turned out there was nothing to prevent -- was immoral and illegal. It was a departure from just war theory as well as from our own cherished national traditions.

Second, we allowed irrational emotions -- of fear, anger, patriotism and vengeance -- to drive us. Sept. 11 became an all-powerful totem. Bush had only to invoke it to sweep away all resistance. Of course Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. When nations begin acting out of mere emotion, especially atavistic emotion, they have taken a baby step toward fascism.

Third, Bush's entire approach to the Middle East, including his invasion of Iraq, was dreamed up before 9/11 by neocons ignorant of the Arab and Muslim world and egregiously biased toward Israel. I remain a staunch supporter of Israel, but our Mideast policy needs to be much more evenhanded. I have come to realize that the Jewish voters in my state of New York are actually ahead of me on this issue. The same holds true for Bush's dangerous saber rattling on Iran. I have foolishly tried to stake out a position to Bush's right on Iran, going hat in hand before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to assure American Jews that I would be prepared to attack Iran. That's crazy talk, and it's not even a political winner. AIPAC doesn't speak for the majority of my Jewish constituents, and it certainly doesn't speak for me.

Fourth, the very idea of a "war on terror" is self-defeating. Terrorism is a tactic embraced by weaker parties, sometimes used to pursue ends we may agree with -- which is why no state has ever adopted a consistent policy toward it, and policy based on a purely moralistic condemnation of it ends up becoming hypocritical and self-contradictory. A state can condemn terrorism without committing itself to a doomed mission to eradicate it. As Iraq demonstrates, basing one's foreign policy around making a "war" on it is folly.

And finally, the war was a mistake because it greatly damaged our national security. The number of global terrorist attacks have soared since we invaded. Thanks to Bush's folly, al-Qaida has made a stunning comeback and is now recruiting in North Africa, among other places. Afghanistan is a mess because we opened a second front without enough troops. The point is, all this was entirely predictable -- and many people did in fact predict it. Waging war and occupying a nation is not likely to win friends, even if the war topples a brutal dictator. As the Iraq Study Group made emphatically clear, we have to give up Bush's force-addicted approach and turn to diplomacy and cooperation.

This takes us back to where we started: national security. Fear of being accused of being soft on national security is the reason I cast my vote for the war. Well, the time has come to say, "Enough."

I'm sick of letting my entire political life be warped by this lie. I've tied myself into knots trying to prove my "toughness." But the fact is, the "tough" Bush Doctrine has been a disaster for America. And my country means too much to me to play this stupid game anymore. The whole "Democrats are weak on national security" line is a meaningless smear, and the more we try to act tough -- which in reality shows our weakness, our inability to stand up to GOP bullying -- the more we perpetuate it. Frankly, there are always going to be authoritarian, resentful, ignorant yahoos who will vote for whatever demagogue gets up and says he's going to launch self-defeating "wars on terror" and beat the world into submission. Well, let those Fox News mouth-breathers vote Republican. We don't want them anyway.

The only way to break out of this "weak on national security" trap is to challenge its very assumptions. Challenge the idea that force is always the best response to threats. Challenge the idea that the Republicans have a monopoly on national security. Point out that Bush's incessant fear-mongering is unworthy of our great and powerful nation. And proudly proclaim that an America self-confident and wise enough to reject authoritarianism and militarism is a far stronger America than the musclebound, myopic, vengeful, fearful one imagined by Bush. We tried Bush's approach and the results are in. I am prepared to use force when necessary. But it's time to use brains, not just brawn, to fight our enemies.

A few years ago, when my husband, Bill Clinton, was president, I spoke out about "a vast right-wing conspiracy" dedicated to bringing him down. History has vindicated me. And today, I can no longer remain silent in the face of a much more powerful and sinister right-wing conspiracy -- this one directed out of the Oval Office. This is a conspiracy aimed at giving the executive branch unprecedented power. It uses secrecy, intimidation, demagoguery and outright lies to pursue its radical goals. It is run by men who are so convinced they stand in the light of truth, justice and godliness that they deem any means justified to achieve those goals. Like all true believers when forced to confront reality, they have become increasingly delusional -- look at the ravings of Dick Cheney, a certifiable lunatic who apparently believes that Iraq is a shining success. These men call themselves conservatives, but have nothing to do with traditional conservatism. They are radicals.

The Iraq war was the culmination of this conspiracy. And if I do not speak out, not just against that historic disaster but against the deeply corrupt and dangerous administration that brought it to us, I will be complicit with it.

For far too long I have been a follower, not a leader, timidly shaping my views to correspond to some imagined political center, some vague sense of a "silent majority." It's the same gutless deference to "Middle America" that caused the media to cave in to Bush's war. Well, I've decided it's time to lead, not follow. The truth is, Middle America is more sensible, and conservative in the traditional sense, than we give it credit for. And it's waiting for someone to tell it the truth.

I know the risks in speaking out. I know I may doom my political career. But this is about something bigger. This is about turning America in a different, more honest, more hopeful direction. It's about trying to change our civic culture so that politicians no longer pander to the lowest common national denominator, and by so doing never inspire, educate or elevate the American people. It's about remaking our great country so that the United States will once again be admired around the world, not feared and hated. And it's about making a world in which America will be far more secure than it is today.

Thank you, and God bless America.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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