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.
However, former defense secretary Robert Gates’ new book casts a different light on Clinton’s opposition to the surge. In it, Gates writes that both Clinton and Obama stated in his presence that their opposition to the surge was largely political, no doubt efforts on the part of both to out-Left each other in their appeals for the affinity of the Democratic base. More than anything, Gate’s revelation about the political nature of Clinton’s opposition to the surge makes one wonder what else she wasn’t and isn’t being wholly genuine about. Could it be that her entire apology tour in 2008 to disown her vote for the war was just as insincere as her supposedly steadfast opposition to President Bush’s surge? If the regret over her vote was only political and was only exhibited in an effort to be her party’s nominee, then perhaps it would not strain credulity to believe that Clinton did not in fact undergo a genuine transformation. To employ a phrase introduced into the political lexicon by Team Romney, perhaps she was engaging in Etch-A-Sketch politics. Besides, almost everyone in Washington knows that a politician, especially one as seasoned as Hillary Clinton, rarely undergoes a real change of heart.
Her tenure as Secretary of State can also be viewed through the prism of the Iraq War vote. She publicly expressed delight when Qaddafi was killed, and now Libya is worse off after Qaddafi’s ouster than before. Tribal militias are prevalent, al Qaeda affiliates operate unabated, and the government in Tripoli is fractured and largely impotent to respond to the increasing political chaos and security deficit. On top of that, Benghazi, the city the United Nations mandated itself to protect from Qaddafi’s forces in early 2011, was the site of the attack on the U.S. consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012.
The consulate attack provoked myriad accusations of a cover-up, some of them motivated out of a partisan desire to embarrass the Obama administration in an election year more than anything else. Nevertheless, had the Obama administration and its allies decided against aiding the rebels, many of them extremists, with funds, arms and air power, and had it abandoned the “responsibility to protect” doctrine that seems to perennially govern American foreign policy, the attack on the consulate might never have taken place. Four Americans might still be alive.
Regime change, the same end that was accomplished in Iraq, was achieved in Libya, albeit by disparate means. The same principles determined the justification for intervention; an appeal to the better angels of our nature, the repressive history and crimes of a despot’s regime formulated into a laundry list of grievances, and waxing poetic about what democracy would entail for the region and for U.S. interests. Secretary Clinton enthusiastically embraced regime change in Libya, just as she had nine years before in the Senate with respect to Iraq. Her convictions and beliefs about regime change, intervention, and preemption, convictions she had arduously abandoned in 2008, seemed to return with a vengeance. Secretary Clinton was all smiles on the day of Qaddafi’s death, even paraphrasing Julius Caesar: “We came, we saw, he died.” But just as in Iraq, a dictator was removed by force, only to be supplanted with chaos and a subsequent loss of American influence in the region.
Iraq today is in an increasingly perilous state. Al Qaeda, reminiscent of 2004, has a heavy presence in Fallujah, Ramadi, and swaths of territory across Anbar Province and central Iraq. Baghdad is the prime target of suicide terrorism. The casualty list grows ever longer. And Clinton’s vote for the 2003 war is still relevant here, too. Had she voted against it, a more rigorous debate about the wisdom of going to war might have ensued, due in large measure to the prominence she had accumulated both as First Lady and as a senator. Had that debate averted the war, Al Qaeda would not have any sort of presence in Iraq, let alone control a city such as Fallujah. Bombs wouldn’t be detonating in crowded markets, parks, and playgrounds. There wouldn’t be over two million internal and external Iraqi refugees, and forty-five hundred brave Americans might still be with us.
It is important that the Iraq War and its origins continue to be debated. There remain hard lessons to be learned and one could conceivably make an eloquent case that the vote for the war was and continues to be a disqualifier, especially if that same ill-advised policy of regime change, embraced by the Hillary Clinton of 2002 in her role as a United States senator, was identically embraced by the Hillary Clinton of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 in her role as America’s chief diplomat. Whether the 2016 Democratic contest is relatively short or turns out to be a protracted fight, and whether Hillary Clinton’s nomination is inevitable or not, her vote to give President Bush the authority to remove Saddam Hussein preemptively deserves another day in court.
Zane Albayati is a writer based in Washington, D.C.