Hillary Clinton's long strange journey on Iraq

On this sad fifth anniversary, I can't help wishing she'd been bolder in admitting her mistake in voting to authorize Bush's war.


Joan Walsh
March 19, 2008 8:07PM (UTC)

The fifth anniversary of the Iraq war is profoundly depressing. One year ago it seemed there was near-consensus that the war was a disaster, and Democrats were working to coalesce around the best withdrawal strategy. I launched this blog exactly a year ago, and my first post, "What a difference four years makes," noted the sea change in American political thinking since the "Mission Accomplished" delusion and the brutalizing of war opponents in the days after Saddam fell.

Now Iraq is off the front pages of most papers (except for this week; Americans love anniversaries!), despite the deaths of almost 4,000 Americans and many thousands more Iraqis. And while John McCain stumbled this week linking Iran and al-Qaida (Iran's Shiite leaders don't love the Sunni al-Qaida folks), there's still a decent chance he'll get his way to lead us into the 100-year occupation he's ready for, at least partly because of the bitter battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

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I'll vote for either candidate enthusiastically in November, but I've had my doubts about both. My reservations about Clinton center on her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and her perverse refusal to deliver a persuasive apology and frankly call it a mistake. I wrote yesterday about Obama's bold speech on race, even while noting my reservations about it. It was hard not to think, by contrast, about Clinton's failure to marshal all of her rhetorical resources -- a year ago, a month ago, today? -- to fight the single most persuasive argument against her candidacy: that when she had the chance, she didn't face down George W. Bush and oppose his rush to war in 2003.

Of course, neither did most Democratic senators, and the most disappointing of them were the ones with presidential ambitions: Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd. A climate of political intimidation in October 2002 cowed many Democrats into bad decisions. Yet all of the others have found a way to clearly acknowledge how wrong they were to authorize Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein; Clinton is on her own in resisting even the use of the word "mistake," and it's limited her primary appeal. For every Obama supporter I consider an Obamaton (they're out there), there are many others who decided with integrity that they simply could not support Clinton because of that Iraq vote and her failure to adequately lament it.

To be fair, I don't believe Clinton thought she was authorizing Bush to go to war when and the way he did. As she said in her October 2002 speech, "If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us ... 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." That sounded encouraging. But then she slid down the rabbit hole: "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."

Here's the thing: Many of us -- a small but not silent majority -- knew enough not to take the president at his word. Many of us knew he was determined to go to war, alone if necessary. That's the line from Clinton's speech I can't get around, that makes me wish she'd seen the necessity to talk about her mistake.

She's not the orator Obama is, but while he was speaking about his decision to stand by Jeremiah Wright yesterday, while putting it in the context of America's often tragic but unfinished story of racial politics, I couldn't help imagining Clinton undertaking a similar risk, and laying out her own Iraq mistake in the context of her wider views about American security. It might be too late for a lot of Hillary haters, but who cares, really: The truth really does set us free. And politically, it's been clear all year that vulnerable, human, humble, wonky Hillary is much more appealing than the Hillary who proclaims from on high she's ready on Day One for the phone call at 3 a.m. with Solutions for America, blah blah blah. I can think of no better way for Clinton to mark this somber fifth anniversary of war than with a courageous, anguished speech admitting her mistake and committing herself to getting us out of this mess.

I don't expect her to do it this late in the game, though I'd love to be wrong. More than a year ago her advisors laid out their thinking on the question of admitting her Iraq error to the New York Times. It boiled down to wanting to avoid the Kerry flip-flop label, as well as believing that the first serious female candidate for commander in chief needed to look resolute, and couldn't afford to admit a mistake. Whoever sold her on that idea must have been ... a man. (Many people blame Mark Penn.) For all the sexism and gender stereotyping that's hurt Clinton's presidential bid, that may go down as the most damaging. If Clinton loses, a long list of bad campaign decisions will be analyzed and derided, but that one will be high on my list.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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