Two election cycles after losing the Democratic Party nomination because of her Iraq War vote, Hillary Clinton finally seems to have put it behind her. In fact, with the latest wave of ISIS hysteria, her hawkishness is seen by some as a plus. At the same time, striking a balance, a good case can be made that, though she did vote to authorize the Iraq War, she would never have started it herself if she had been president.
John Kerry made that very same argument back in 2004, in fact. As Kevin Drum described at the time, the media was echoing the Bush campaign spin, presenting Kerry's position as confused and ludicrous at best, and as inconsistent flip-flopping at worst. But actually his position was a familiar one to them:
[T]hey know very well that there are lots and lots of liberal hawks and other former war supporters who have exactly the same position: pressuring Saddam was good, inspections were good, and eventually war might have been good too.
But Bush blew it: he failed to rally world opinion, he failed to get the Arab world on our side, he failed to let the inspections process run its course, and he failed to plan properly for the postwar occupation. The result is a loss of American power and prestige, a diminished chance of Iraq becoming a pluralistic democracy, and an al-Qaeda that's been given a second lease on life thanks to George Bush's Queeg-like obsession with Saddam Hussein.
You'll note that there's nothing new in the idea that invading Iraq benefited the Jihadi cause. Liberal hawks may have been mistaken, but not nearly as much as the neocons, whose trap they fell into. So has the liberal hawk position finally been fully vindicated? Is Hillary Clinton finally in the right place, at the right time?
Electorally, perhaps. But in terms of actually having a working policy? That's a whole different story. After all, Clinton herself pushed hard for a similarly flawed regime change strategy in Libya—Conor Friedersdorf even compared her role in Libya to Cheney's in Iraq. Hyperbolic? Yes. But he did have a point. As summarized by Joel Gillin at the New Republic, she did get carried away with questionable intelligence, over-focused on deposing a long-time U.S. bogeyman, and failed to give sufficient consideration to the depths of difficulties that would follow afterwards. All of which allowed the broader jihadi threat increased opportunity to spread.
In particular, the key claim that something genocidal was about to unfold was entirely unfounded, according to a lengthy review of the Libya intervention at the London Review of Books, which noted that “in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda.” Given that Libya had normalized relations with the West in 2003/2004, renouncing its former international outlaw role, including an active WMD program, it was strikingly counterproductive to turn on Gaddafi like that, if you want to coax other “rogue states” into the community of nations.
So, more than a dozen years after the Iraq War vote—which she's finally semi-apologized for—the vote itself is less important than the broader framework in which she cast it, how she explained herself, and how she's acted since. What really matters about her decision back then is what it tells about how she'd try to shape the future. With Rand Paul all but disappearing from sight, the GOP is now unified in its commitment to war, war, war. They will fight fire with gasoline until the last oil well runs dry. If there's going to be any learning from past mistakes, any chance at all, it's entirely up to the Democrats.
So what are the chances with Hillary? Not very good, I'd argue. But they can only improve by better understanding past mistakes. So let's begin with her Iraq War vote and how she justified it at the time. Here are the main problems that jump out from it:
Clinton's mind was far removed from the terrorist threat that made the Iraq War even conceivable in the first place. Her Senate speech (video/text) ran almost 2,500 words, but she never mentioned “terrorism” even once, and mentioned “terrorists” just three times:
He [Saddam Hussein] 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.
Once the battle is joined, however, with the outcome certain, he [Saddam Hussein] will have maximum incentive to use weapons of mass destruction and to give what he can't use to terrorists who can torment us with them long after he is gone.
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.
The last quote simply echoes the neocon conflation of rationales. It's not about actual terrorists at all. The second quote is also primarily about WMDs; the unidentified terrorists are an imagined afterthought. The first quote, therefore, is the only realistically al Qaeda-related reference Clinton made in justifying going to war—albeit as a last resort. She made no attempt whatsoever to talk about the larger context of responding to 9/11. She was essentially silent about what should have been the utmost concern. This was—and remains—her most fundamental mistake.
What should she have been thinking and speaking about? Consider what Gen. Anthony Zinni said just a few months before, in advising strongly against the invasion of Iraq. Zinni began by saying that military leaders see it one way, while those who've never been to war are gung-ho to go fight. Then he said, "You need to weigh this: what are your priorities in the region? That's the first issue in my mind," and he proceeded to tick off a list:
The Middle East peace process, in my mind, has to be a higher priority. Winning the war on terrorism has to be a higher priority. More directly, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Central Asia needs to be resolved, making sure al Qaeda can't rise again from the ashes that are destroyed. Taliban cannot come back. That the warlords can't regain power over Kabul and Karzai, and destroy everything that has happened so far.
That's pretty much a list of most of the major things we've ignored, neglected, or failed to follow through on. If we'd tackled Zinni's list of problems, how much better off would the world be today? Can we even imagine how different it would be? But then he got really serious:
Our relationships in the region are in major disrepair, not to the point where we can't fix them, but we need to quit making enemies we don't need to make enemies out of. And we need to fix those relationships. There's a deep chasm growing between that part of the world and our part of the world. And it's strange, about a month after 9/11, they were sympathetic and compassionate toward us. How did it happen over the last year? And we need to look at that -- that is a higher priority.
I'll have more to say about this below, but one has to ask, how could a retired general be so aware of this problem, while a senator like Clinton did not even consider it in the framework of her argument? Finally, there was one other area of concern Zinni highlighted, before turning to the problems that invading Iraq would unleash:
The country that started this, Iran, is about to turn around, 180 degrees. We ought to be focused on that. The father of extremism, the home of the ayatollah -- the young people are ready to throw out the mullahs and turn around, become a secular society and throw off these ideas of extremism. That is more important and critical. They're the ones that funded Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. That ought to be a focus. And I can give you many, many more before you get down to Saddam and Iraq.
This part of Zinni's speech is particularly haunting, since it represents the lone area in which we've belatedly made some progress in dealing with the wide range of challenges he laid out—and it's taken an incredibly fierce political fight to make that progress real. It's also an area where Clinton has clearly done some long-term good.
Instead of taking the broad, multi-faceted view of all the challenges we faced that Zinni laid out, or, alternatively, focusing on fighting al Qaeda and the terrorist threat, Clinton instead argued her case solely in terms of Iraq, and the logic of how to proceed against Saddam Hussein's regime. She first presented a “factual” account of U.S.-Iraqi history that validated questionable Bush administration claims, and then she argued that her vote was a force for moderation and stability—building bipartisan support for Bush would show strength, and thus save us from war! Let's look more closely at how that went.
“I believe the facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt,” Clinton said, and devoted 411 words to summing up U.S.-Iraq relations through 1998, when the UN inspectors left and the U.S. and Britain responded with a four-day air assault. Her account up to that point was relatively straightforward and “not in doubt.” But then she said this:
In 1998, the United States also changed its underlying policy toward Iraq from containment to regime change and began to examine options to effect such a change, including support for Iraqi opposition leaders within the country and abroad.
However, President Bill Clinton's signing statement for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act falls far short of a vigorous commitment to regime change—as the neocons pushing to oust Hussein were sharply aware. From there, Clinton's account became dramatically less free from doubt:
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.
We now know unequivocally that Iraq did not rebuild its WMD capacities, as Clinton had claimed. There were already ample reasons to doubt it at the time, so she was clearly lying when she said “this much is undisputed.” But she was also expressing a common elite consensus view. And her stress on elite consensus was another troubling aspect of her speech for us to consider—which we'll return to below. First, however, we need to focus on Clinton's claim that Saddam had “given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members.”
Of course, Saddam, as secular dictator, had no reason at all to behave as Clinton described. He and bin Laden were bitter ideological enemies, and the only thing that could bring them together was necessity and a common enemy they hated and feared more than each other. That would be us. And although both Saddam and bin Laden are dead, their followers have joined together to fight us. That is, in fact, the origin story of ISIS—or at least a crucial part of it, as counter-terrorism expert Malcolm Nance has explained, talking to William Arkin, for example. They spoke a week after the death of former Saddam General Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, and Nance said:
What we didn’t know until 2006 was that Saddam knew he would be defeated and used al-Douri to organize an armed insurgency led by the Saddam Fedayeen to recreate the Great Arab Revolution of 1920, where the British were kicked out of southern Iraq after a multi-year insurgency.
Al-Douri and the Revolutionary Command Council also had deep relations with Hafez al-Assad and the Syrian Baath party. At al-Douri’s urging, Saddam opened oil pipelines to Syria and built a cash relationship with the al-Assad family.
In the run-up to the U.S. invasion in 2003, Saddam and al-Douri “Islamicised” the coming insurgency, allowing foreign terrorists into the country. Syria became the pipeline for al-Qaeda foreign fighters and al-Assad happily let them cross the border, using his intelligence agencies to distribute weapons and facilitate travel.
One key group to arrive was that of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his men of Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War). They hated the Baathists but could not move freely through Iraq without their assistance. A partnership was formed, and they worked symbiotically. Soon afterwards, Zarqawi’s group became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
AQI, through various twists and turns, eventually became ISIS. The process by which ISIS emerged was long, bloody and messy, but what got it started and kept it going was the U.S. invasion of Iraq (starting as a threat) and its consequences. The marriage of the two forces was created by our own imagining of it—and Hillary Clinton participated in that creation process, along with everyone else in the bipartisan consensus she consciously invoked.
After her misleading presentation of “the facts” about Iraq, combining real ones with Bush-generated speculation, Clinton went on to craft an equally misleading picture of the policy options, and what a responsible, bipartisan approach would look like.
“Some people favor attacking Saddam Hussein now, with any allies we can muster,” she first said. “However, this course is fraught with danger.... If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us,” she argued, citing the possibilities of Russia invading Georgia to attack Chechen rebels, India launching a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan, or China (implicitly) doing the same vs. Taiwan. All of which led her to conclude that “for all its appeal, a unilateral attack, while it cannot be ruled out, on the present facts is not a good option.”
She then turned to the other “extreme position,” as it were: “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,” which is, of course, what international law says that we have to do. But we're the cops of the world, as Phil Ochs put it, so the laws don't apply to us. And so Clinton argued, in her balanced, bipartisan way:
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.
Even worse, she added:
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.
Meaning that Russia or China might actually stand up for respecting the UN Charter, rather than letting us use it as a fig leaf for attacking Iraq first. (Note, too, Clinton's cute little Condi Rice impersonation.)
She then outdid herself in recasting the nature of the vote she was about to cast:
[T]he question is how do we do our best to both defuse the real threat that Saddam Hussein poses to his people, to the region, including Israel, to the United States, to the world, and at the same time, work to maximize our international support and strengthen the United Nations?
Again, we see Clinton running together distinctly different things: Saddam's very real (but hardly unique) threat to his own people with a vague-at-best threat “to the region, including Israel,” and a nonexistent threat “to the United States, to the world.” How any of these are supposed to be related to 9/11 and the threat of international terrorism does not even come close to making it onto Clinton's radar—although she does claim to want to “maximize our international support and strengthen the United Nations”— both of which would certainly be much more likely if we'd stuck to focusing on al Qaeda and fighting terrorism, rather than settling old scores.
But, Clinton, as much as Bush, was still too fixated on Iraq to even begin thinking clearly about that, even a full 13 months after 9/11. And so she concluded, “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.” She was not completely satisfied with how Bush was proceeding, but hey, close enough for bipartisanship, right?
President Bush's speech in Cincinnati and the changes in policy that have come forth since the Administration began broaching this issue some weeks ago have made my vote easier. 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.
Clinton apparently thought Bush's Cincinnati speech was just great. A critical reading by experts leaves a very different impression. Consider Bush's wild-eyed fear-mongering claim that Iraq might threaten the U.S. with drones (unmanned armed vehicles—UAVs):
We are concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using UAVs for missions targeting the United States.
In response to which, author Rahul Mahajan said, “The claim that these UAVs have ranges that would enable attacking the United States, and that they could reach it undetected, is a startlingly new one, and entirely untenable. No one has ever produced evidence of Iraqi capability or intent to target the United States directly.” Not only should the drone claim been seen as a wild-eyed threat exaggeration, at best, it should have cast all other publicly unsupported threat claims into very serious doubt as well.
Mahajan and other experts critical of Bush had a much better read of what he was up to than Clinton did, and comparing their critical analysis to her uncritical acceptance shows just how much her elite bipartisan insiderism blinded her to what was actually going on. Note, in particular, this part of Bush's speech, and Mahajan's critical comment:
[Bush:] Some citizens wonder: After 11 years of living with this problem, why do we need to confront it now?
There is a reason. We have experienced the horror of September 11. We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people. Our enemies would be no less willing — in fact they would be eager — to use a biological, or chemical, or a nuclear weapon.
Mahajan: “Invoking September 11 without showing any kind of link between the government of Iraq and those attacks is just transparent manipulation. What he really means is that after September 11 he thinks he can get away with such a policy.”
Clinton went along with this nonsense, accepting its lack of logic as a form of logic, because it was what elite insiders were doing at the time. As with Kerry, there's no reason to think she would have pulled the trigger on going to war without WMDs being found—and yet, as the case of Libya (cited above) reminds us, she remains very willing to use force based on questionable intelligence, without fulling thinking through the alternatives, the long-term consequences, or the other problems facing us which ought to rank a good deal higher in our list of concerns.
Make no mistake, there's no one in the GOP who wouldn't eagerly make things much much worse when it comes to pursuing a war against terrorism. But that's a truly terrible yardstick for us to be using. Terrorists want war. War creates more terrorists. That's what the Iraq War clearly demonstrated. We need to think about going beyond that, finding a different way. In his conversation with William Arkin, Malcolm Nance proposed a multi-faceted approach to combating ISIS, with different strategies in different theaters of struggle, but first and foremost he called for taking on their ideology:
Launch an integrated global counterideology war against ISIS/Al-Qaeda: I call it Counter Ideology Operations and Warfare (CIDOW). We need to confront the belief system head on. The global jihad movement ideology is a destructive religious cult. It is so un-Islamic that it is virtually anti-Islamic. Soon enough, ISIS will do something that enrages the entire Muslim world and it will force them to act. Burning the Jordanian pilot came close, but we shall see what lifts the veil from their eyes.
The last 14 years have seen America completely lose track of what its own core ideological strengths are. If “they hate us for our freedoms,” then fine, we'll get rid of them. That's been our response in a nutshell. We've been taken so far out of touch with our own values that it might seem like a pipe dream to turn the tables on ISIS and exploit their contradictions. But that's exactly what we need to do. And nothing in Hillary Clinton's record shows any capacity for engaging ISIS on those terms.
To the contrary, Clinton's just like Bush and the neocons in fighting the last century's wars. She's much smarter about it, in theory at least. But we're in a whole different ballgame now, and none of our foreign policy elites seem to have a clue about that, despite a growing chorus of experts trying to point to a different way.