Hillary Clinton's Iraq War Vote Still Matters

An unreformed advocate of regime change.

Hillary Clinton seems destined to run for president in 2016. Her chances of capturing the Democratic nomination are once again taking on that familiar quality of inevitability, redolent of the runup to the primary contest in 2008. Prominent Democrats are already pledging to stay out of the race in 2016 to make way for another Clinton candidacy while others have begun to offer premature endorsements, hoping not to be left behind when the Clinton Express begins its journey to Pennsylvania Avenue. In spite of these developments, Brian Schweitzer, the former Democratic governor of Montana and a potential rival to Clinton in 2016, took a not-so-subtle jab at the former Secretary of State and senator from New York. Schweitzer seemed to suggest that, without citing names, anyone who voted for the Iraq War was still, more than eleven years out from that controversial vote, disqualified from holding the office of the president. Whether or not Schweitzer himself is a credible alternative to Clinton is peripheral to the issue he raises, an issue that deserves to be relitigated, both because of the catastrophic consequences the Iraq War entailed for the United States and the relatively recent resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq.

In the 2008 Democratic primary, Iraq, more than the economy, was the paramount issue that framed the contest and sealed the respective fates of the two major candidates vying for the nomination: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton tried everything to distance herself from the affirmative vote she cast for the Iraq War Resolution of 2002, a resolution that gave President Bush carte blanche in determining when and how to remove the regime in Baghdad. The measure passed both Houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support and put members of Congress on the record less than a month before contentious off-year elections were to take place.

The Democratic primary electorate, however endeared it was to Clinton on other issues, was incredulous at best of Clinton’s election year conversion into an anti-Iraq War crusader. Clinton lost the nomination because of her vote to give President Bush the authorization to use force in Iraq. Obama won the nomination, and subsequently the presidency, largely because of that same vote. The issue that Schweitzer raised deserves to be examined and debated just as rigorously in 2016 as it was in 2008, given that the war, which presently isn’t even close to concluding, resulted in the deaths of more than four thousand U.S. service members, cost over a trillion dollars, exacerbated the volatility of a crucial region for U.S. national interests, gave impetus to Iranian hegemony, introduced Al Qaeda, suicide terrorism, Zarqawism, and sectarian violence in Iraq, eroded American credibility in the world, and led to pervasive, chronic, and ultimately tragic misfortune for the Iraqi populace.

Seventy-seven senators voted to give President Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq, including twenty-nine Democrats. Then-senators Biden and Kerry joined Clinton in voting in favor of the war resolution. In her speech on the Senate floor to give justification for her vote, Clinton made George Bush’s case better than the President himself, blending elements of liberal internationalism and realism in an eloquent appeal for intervention and regime change in Baghdad. At the conclusion of the speech, Senator Clinton stated unequivocally that her vote for the resolution was based firmly on her own conviction. Despite the waffling, the wiggling, and the wavering on the campaign trail in 2008 to disavow her initial vote, it was clear to most that Clinton’s conviction was more aligned with Bush’s preceding the invasion of Iraq and that the vote itself was more of a case of supporting Bush’s policy of regime change over some vague notion of giving the President, with the approbation of Congress, the awesome war-making powers that as Commander-in-Chief he was then expected to exercise prudentially.

Clinton’s Senate speech and her subsequent change of heart on Iraq, as well as her tenure at the helm in Foggy Bottom, are incredibly revealing and bring into question what kind of foreign policy a hypothetical President Clinton would pursue. During her makeover to an Iraq dove in 2008, Clinton suggested that she had learned the lessons of the Iraq War and stated numerous times that she regretted her vote and would have voted differently had she known in 2002 what she knew in 2008. She also opposed the troop surge that began in early 2007, an increase in U.S. troop levels in Baghdad and Anbar Province and a shift in war strategy that hoped to diminish the intolerable levels of violence in Iraq and pave the way for a genuine national reconciliation between the Sunnis, the Shia, and the Kurds. The contrite Clinton’s regret over her vote seemed authentic enough and her opposition to the troop surge fit in neatly with her transformation as an antiwar candidate, even if ultimately it wasn’t enough to overcome Obama’s perceived consistency in opposing the Iraq War from the very beginning.

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