Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Hillary Clinton still hasn’t explained how she came to make the worst mistake of her career

The Washington Post has written the most thorough piece I’ve yet seen about Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war. 

A U.S. soldier watching the statue of Saddam Hussein fall in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Hillary Clinton needs to talk to Michael Kranish. She declined to do so in connection with Kranish’s story, published yesterday in the Washington Post, but when she is fully recovered from her recent illness, she should reconsider.

Kranish has written the most thorough piece I’ve yet seen about the worst mistake of Clinton’s public career, her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war. Kranish wants to understand how she came to cast that vote. So do I. So should the American electorate. It is a much, more important question than anything to do with her “damn e-mails” (as Bernie Sanders so elegantly labeled them) or the meetings she had as secretary of state with parties who were also donors to the Clinton Foundation, or the word she chose (“deplorable”) to describe racists and sexists who support Donald Trump.

Those may be sexier stories, but this is the real deal. Presidents get to decide what’s worth having a war over. (You can say that Congress technically has that constitutional power, but you’d be kidding yourself.)  Making that decision carefully and getting it as right as possible, is perhaps the biggest enchilada for a president.

Clinton has said that her 2002 vote was a “mistake,” although it took her until 2015 to embrace the “m” word. (According to Kranish’s piece, she considered using the word during her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, but was advised that it would be a political mistake to call her mistake a “mistake.”)

Article continues after advertisement

Regular readers of this space will know that I’m slightly obsessed with Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war. It fits a pattern of hawkishness throughout her public career, which is the thing that worries me most about the prospect of her as commander-in-chief.

Kranish makes clear that she took the hawkish side of many debates during her husband’s presidency. If you read the piece, you’ll get the list. Some of them worked out better than others. On balance, I’m deeply convinced that the United States gets itself into too many wars, few of which live up to the promises of their promoters. The Iraq war was sold on a falsehood and on the usual exaggerated promises about the wonderful world-improving blessings that would flow from it, including the spread of peace and democracy across the Mideast.

Maybe it’s unfair to hold people accountable for all the negative consequences of their decisions, consequences that they didn’t hope or believe would ensue. But, within reason, I do think it is reasonable. People are still dying — yesterday, today and tomorrow — for this mistake. The wave of democracy in the region it was going to unleash isn’t looking that hot. And then there’s the fact the reason (or excuse) for the war – weapons of mass destruction – turned out not to be there. But then that was known before the war started.

Before providing a little of what Kranish found, let me get this out of the way. Donald Trump is not qualified to be commander-in-chief. It’s hard to imagine what we would get if he got the job. He is the loosest of loose cannons. He also favored the Iraq war, but now lies and says he opposed it. This is not a comparison between the two candidates’ fitness for the office.

The evolution of a hawk

As a college student, Hillary Clinton opposed the Vietnam War. By the time she was First Lady, she had become a hawk, apparently (according to Kranish) much more so than President Bill Clinton. She participated in pushing for military actions several times during his presidency. I’m not a pacifist, but in my view many of those military actions did as much or more harm than good.

Hillary Clinton is also a big-time believer in American exceptionalism, including in matters of using the military to make the world better. As Kranish writes, by the time she voted “aye” to authorize President Bush to use military force in Iraq, “it was little surprise to many who watched her evolution as a hawk over her years as a first lady and then as a senator.”

She is a serious person and a hard worker, so it was a bit surprising that, Kranish finds, she apparently didn’t read some of the classified analysis of the situation in Iraq made available to senators in the run-up to the vote. Some of those senators cited those classified analyses in explaining why they voted against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Writes Kranish:

For years, Clinton has blamed [Pres. George W.] Bush for misleading her into voting for the resolution …. Clinton has often argued, for example, that the Bush Administration had told wobbly senators that he wouldn’t use the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to actually use military force, but that he would use the AUMF to pressure the United Nations to pressure Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq to find out whether Saddam was actually hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Article continues after advertisement

… After Clinton left the White House, she took a call from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Clinton later cited this conversation as evidence that the Bush administration “misled” her. As she told it in a 2006 interview with the Atlantic, “Condi Rice called me and asked if I had any questions. I said, ‘Look, I have one question: If the president has this authority, will he go to the United Nations and use it to get inspectors to go back into Iraq and figure out what this guy has?’

“‘Yes, that’s what it’s for,’” Rice responded, according to Clinton.

Rice declined to comment, but her spokeswoman, Georgia Godfrey, said via email that Rice never would have suggested that “the Authorization would be limited to getting inspectors in.”

I don’t claim to know whether Clinton or Rice or both are telling the truth about this claim. But if Clinton is the one telling the truth — the hard-to-believe claim that senators being asked to vote to authorize the use of military of force were being told by the White House that force would not be used and that the vote was just about pressuring Saddam to let the weapons inspectors back in – then Clinton has to address a large serious question that, to my knowledge, she never has.

Remember, Saddam did cave. He did let the U.N. inspectors back in and, according to the inspectors themselves, gave them full cooperation and allowed them to look anywhere, anytime with no advance warning, and they found no secret caches of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

The U.N. inspection team was finishing up its work of establishing that Saddam was indeed neither hiding nor developing Weapons of Mass Destruction when the inspectors were told to get out of Iraq because the U.S. bombing blitz known as “Shock and Awe” was about to begin.

If, as Clinton suggests, she had voted for the AUMF because she had been assured that it was just a tactic to get Saddam to let the inspectors back in, and then the inspectors did get back in and found no WMD but had to be evacuated because the U.S. war to rid Iraq of WMD (that didn’t exist) had to begin, it seems to me that she should have cried foul, and said that she had been duped. But she said no such thing until years later, as far as I can tell. That begs a question she should be asked, and she should answer, along with several others raised by Kranish’s article. Unfortunately, she declined to be interviewed for the piece.

I’ll give Clinton the last word, via Kranish, who found in the transcript of the recent “commander-in-chief” interview on MSNBC that moderator Matt Lauer, who framed the question backward (from my viewpoint) by challenging her to think about how it might make veterans of the Iraq War feel to find out that she now views her vote for it as a mistake. She replied:

Article continues after advertisement

It is imperative that we learn from the mistakes. We must learn what led us down that path so that it never happens again. I think I’m in the best possible position to be able to understand that and prevent it.