When did Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton first publicly express her outrage at the betrayal of White House promises that were made to her to secure her vote in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq war?
In the Sunday “Meet the Press” appearance that fanned the flames of Clinton’s current contretemps with Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton chided interviewer Tim Russert for an excessive interest in such historical questions, terming them “jesuitical.”
Russert didn’t ask her my precise question. I have requested an answer from the Clinton campaign, received none, but the early results of my research into the question are surprising and troubling.
Clinton and some of her supporters often argue that it no longer matters much who did what in the run-up to the war, it matters who can end it. Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Believing that the war was a preventable disaster, I want to know who did what they could to prevent it. It might help us guess who would be least likely to get us into the next one.
But to understand why the question above is worth asking you’ll have to follow me into the weeds of the contretemps itself.
The candidate’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, went on a riff the day before the New Hampshire primary about how Obama’s candidacy was premised on “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” Some people seem to be trying to take this as vaguely racist, which I don’t see at all (watch the video and decide for yourself).
The real subject of the riff was Team Clinton’s assertion that Obama exaggerates the degree of his past opposition to the Iraq war. In the Russert interview, Sen. Clinton conceded that Obama deserves credit for opposing the war before it began. The Obama speech, given the same month that the Senate passed the authorization for the war, is so prescient that friends of mine have occasionally asked me to check whether the date is correct. It looks like a test paper written by someone who had already seen the answer sheet.
But the Clinton claim is that Obama didn’t follow up. In his successful 2004 Senate campaign, he didn’t emphasize his credentials as a war critic (my Illinois friends confirm that this was not central to his campaign). He took the 2002 speech down from his website, and when asked (by Russert on “Meet the Press” no less, during the 2004 Democratic convention) how he would have voted if he had been in the Senate in 2002, Obama said he couldn’t say for sure. But when Bill and Hillary quote the 2004 statement, they leave off the very important last sentence:
“I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports,” Obama said. ”What would I have done? I don’t know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made.”
Obama subsequently said, again on MTP last fall, that he framed that answer to avoid embarrassing the Kerry-Edwards ticket, since both nominees had voted for the Iraq use of force authorization. Sen. Clinton rejected that excuse Sunday as “political” logic from a candidate who portrays himself as above political pandering.
Similar voting records
The Clinton attack is more convincing when it moves to the years after Obama entered the Senate in 2005. They say that Obama and Clinton have had virtually identical voting records on Iraq issues since then. As far as I can tell, that is accurate. Team Obama disputes it, but the differences to which they point are not really about Senate votes.
In fact, neither Clinton nor Obama favored cutting off funds for the war, nor setting a mandatory timeline for troop withdrawals until fairly recently, and to no real effect. Until 2005, Clinton employ Bushian rhetoric about the importance of “staying the course” in Iraq because “failure is not an option.”
Obama has justified his unwillingness to cut off funds or force a withdrawal with the argument that although it would have been better not to invade and occupy, you have to deal with the problems that the invasion created.
Obama didn’t emphasize his pre-war opposition in 2003-4, when the war was popular in the country, for which I subtract half a political courage point. But he never repudiated or contradicted the speech. Clinton has followed a strange policy of never using the word “mistake” to describe her 2002 vote, never apologizing for it, but frequently asserting that she takes responsibility for it, for which I subtract three-quarters of a straight talk point.
During the campaign, the choice between Obama and Clinton has sometimes been oversimplified by pollsters, pundits and perhaps by the candidates themselves, into the rather idiotic question of whether standing for “change” is more important than having “experience.” Obama’s reply to his relative lack of experience has been that he has demonstrated “judgment,” which is even better than “experience.” Exhibit A for his “judgment” argument has been that he got the Iraq war question right in 2002 (while Clinton got it wrong).
I’d feel better about this reply if I knew what Exhibits B, C and D were. But Exhibit A is pretty darn good. Which is why the Clintons have been trying to minimize it.
The trouble is that when Sen. Clinton brings it up, she is also bringing up her own vote to authorize the war. Russert pressed her hard on it. Clinton’s defense of the vote (she’s not the only one who has used this defense) is that she believed she wasn’t authorizing a unilateral or pre-emptive attack (although the language of the resolution clearly made both of these possible), but was increasing the pressure to get the U.N. inspectors back into Iraq in hopes of peacefully disarming Saddam Hussein.
Clinton specifically asserts that before voting, she asked and received assurances from Condoleezza Rice that Bush wasn’t just using the idea of inspections to justify a war, but would really allow the inspectors to complete their work. (Aha, we’re almost out of the contretemps weeds and returning to the question at the top of this post.)
So, in October 2002, the Senate authorizes the use of force; the U.N. follows with a tough new resolution threatening serious consequences if Iraq doesn’t comply with all the old weapons resolutions; Saddam agrees to a new round of inspections; and the inspectors search where that the CIA tells them they believe the banned WMD’s are hidden, but they don’t find any serious stockpiles. Bush says in his January 2003 State of the Union Message that Saddam is “not disarming” but is “deceiving.” The U.N. inspectors say they are getting heightened cooperation and need more time to verify the Iraqi claims that they have destroyed all the banned weapons. And then Bush announces that the bombing will start within 48 hours unless Saddam leaves Iraq. Saddam doesn’t leave, the inspectors do, and the “shock and awe” bombing begins.
Searching the archives
At some point in the late stages of this process, Sen. Clinton must realize that the inspectors are not going to be allowed to complete their work and the resolution that she voted for is going to be used for a preemptive war of choice.
As I’m listening to Clinton Sunday describe the basis on which she had voted for the resolution, I wonder: at what point did she call the foul. If she had been lied to by the administration about allowing the inspectors to complete their work, shouldn’t she be telling to the world, preferably before the inspectors are withdrawn and the bombing starts.
I emailed to three officials of the Clinton campaign to explain what I am researching and asking only to be referred to the earliest known instance in which Sen. Clinton made a public statement along the lines of the one she made on “Meet the Press.” I haven’t heard back. I’ll renew the request today. I know those guys are very busy.
While I waited, I searched the archives of The New York Times in the first five months of 2003, running from the period when the inspections were proceeding, through “shock and awe” and all the way through to “Mission Accomplished.” I couldn’t find a story in which Clinton called the foul or expressed any reservations whatsoever about the decision to disregard the inspectors’ findings, the decision to withdraw them, the war that was clearly about to start, or even to announce any approval or disapproval of the military course of the war, unless she managed to do it in a story that didn’t use the words “Hillary,” “Clinton” and “Iraq.”
I’m serious. She expressed no thoughts about the war at all to The New York Times. I did find a piece by a Times reporter who tried, but couldn’t get a comment from the junior senator. The piece quotes anti-war protesters who were unhappy with the senator’s silence and a letter to the editor stating:
“New York’s senators, having voted for the resolution last year authorizing the use of force in Iraq, appear to have lost their voices entirely. History will record that when the country effected a sea change in its posture toward the world, Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles E. Schumer were nowhere to be found.”
There was a congressional roundup on April 1, headlined: “Democratic Lawmakers Keep Their Heads Down,” stating that:
“The Bush administration’s war policy is coming under steady criticism, but not from Democrats in Congress, where the opposition party has been remarkably silent. Except for a few persistent voices, Democratic lawmakers are holding their tongues on the war in Iraq, allowing generals to take the lead in challenging Pentagon planners while they avoid taking positions they fear could invite Republican retaliation.”
I know I should recall this stunning silence, but I was shocked at the totality of it. So I pushed on into June, with major combat over and the first clear indications that U.S. teams weren’t finding any weapons:
“On Capitol Hill, Democrats who were largely silent during the war have begun to challenge Mr. Bush. Some, like Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, have suggested that administration officials may have embellished intelligence reports during the buildup to war in Iraq.
“Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, said in an interview that ‘serious questions have been raised that need to be answered.’
“But other prominent Democrats, including such presidential contenders as Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have struck a far more cautious tone, with their aides warning that such attacks could end up hurting the Democratic Party, depending on how events play out. Several polls have indicated that the public remains largely supportive of the war, and that people are not particularly concerned that the weapons that Mr. Bush said would be found have not yet been located.”
‘New interpretation’ of 2002 vote
At least as far as the Times was able to discover, the first substantive reaction to the war from Hillary Clinton occurred at the end of the year when, after returning from a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, she associated herself with Sen. John McCain’s criticism that more troops were needed. Clinton also complained that the administration had undersold the cost and duration of the Iraq project. But in speeches after that visit, she also declared her vote for the war resolution to have been “the right vote,” and “one I stand by.”
I couldn’t get through any more of the month-by-month search for Clinton’s evolution on the war, but found that reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. had put the whole history of evolution into a chapter of their biography of Clinton and published it in the Times Sunday Magazine under the title “Hillary’s War.”
According to their extensive chronology, it was during the second half of 2005 that Clinton embraced the idea of timetables for withdrawal, and, in a letter to her supporters, reminded them that her 2002 vote had been a vote for continued diplomacy based on administration assurances that the inspectors would be allowed to complete their work.
And it was not until the middle of 2006, as she fully joined the group of Senate Democrats who were strategizing ways to end the war, that she unveiled, in remarks on the Senate floor, what Gerth and Van Natta described as “a new interpretation of her 2002 vote.” It went like this:
The authority Congress had given the president and his administration four years earlier, Clinton explained, had been ”misused” because they acted ”without allowing the inspectors to finish the job in order to rush to war.”
Sunday, on “Meet the Press,” that was still her explanation.
Former Sen. Mark Dayton is co-chair of the Clinton presidential campaign in Minnesota. I called him Monday to seek an answer to my question from a strong Clinton supporter, but also because he had voted against the 2002 resolution.
Dayton said he worked very hard in the run-up to the vote to make sure he would cast the most informed vote he could, and he was confident Clinton had done the same, although he recalled no specific consultations between them. He said there was “more than enough grey area in the situation and more than enough misinformation being thrown around by the Bush administration” that he could easily understand people coming to different conclusions. He considers his own “no” vote to be the proudest moment of his Senate term. But he said that Clinton’s vote in favor of the resolution “is not, for me, a disqualifier” of her presidential aspirations.