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December 14, 2007

Hillary Clinton on Iraq


by Stephen Zunes

Public opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans – and even a larger majority of Democrats – believe that Iraq is the most important issue of the day, that it was wrong for the United States to have invaded that country, and the United States should completely withdraw its forces in short order. Despite this, the clear front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination for president is Senator Hillary Clinton, a strident backer of the invasion who only recently and opportunistically began to criticize the war and call for a partial withdrawal of American forces.

As a result, it is important to review Senator Clinton's past and current positions regarding the Iraq War. Indeed, despite her efforts in response to public opinion polls to come across as an opponent of the war, Hillary Clinton has proven to be one of the most hard-line Democratic senators in support of a military response to the challenges posed by Iraq. She has also been less than honest in justifying her militaristic policies, raising concerns that she might support military interventions elsewhere.

Pre-War Militarism

Senator Clinton's militaristic stance on Iraq predated her support for Bush's 2003 invasion. For example, in defending the brutal four-day U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998 – known as Operation Desert Fox – she claimed that "[T]he so-called presidential palaces ... in reality were huge compounds well suited to hold weapons labs, stocks, and records which Saddam Hussein was required by UN resolution to turn over. When Saddam blocked the inspection process, the inspectors left." In reality, as became apparent when UN inspectors returned in 2002 as well as in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation, there were no weapons labs, stocks of weapons or missing records in these presidential palaces. In addition, Saddam was still allowing for virtually all inspections to go forward at the time of the 1998 U.S. attacks. The inspectors were withdrawn for their own safety at the encouragement of President Clinton in anticipation of the imminent U.S.-led assault.

Senator Clinton also took credit for strengthening U.S. ties with Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted embezzler who played a major role in convincing key segments of the administration, Congress, the CIA, and the American public that Iraq still had proscribed weapons, weapons systems, and weapons labs. She has expressed pride that her husband's administration changed underlying U.S. policy toward Iraq from "containment" – which had been quite successful in defending Iraq's neighbors and protecting its Kurdish minority – to "regime change," which has resulted in tragic warfare, chaos, dislocation, and instability.

Prior to the 2003 invasion, Clinton insisted that Iraq still had a nuclear program, despite a detailed 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), subsequent studies that indicated that Iraq's nuclear program appeared to have been completely dismantled a full decade earlier, and a 2002 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that made no mention of any reconstituted nuclear development effort. Similarly, even though Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs had been dismantled years earlier, she also insisted that Iraq had rebuilt its biological and chemical weapons stockpiles. And, even though the limited shelf life of such chemical and biological agents and the strict embargo against imports of any additional banned materials that had been in place since 1990 made it physically impossible for Iraq to have reconstituted such weapons, she insisted that "It is clear...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."

In the fall of 2002, Senator Clinton sought to discredit those questioning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and others who were making hyperbolic statements about Iraq's supposed military prowess by insisting that Iraq's possession of such weapons "are not in doubt" and was "undisputed." Similarly, Clinton insisted that Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2005 speech at the UN was "compelling" although UN officials and arms control experts roundly denounced its false claims that Iraq had reconstituted these proscribed weapons, weapons programs, and delivery systems. In addition, although top strategic analysts correctly informed her that there were no links between Saddam Hussein's secular nationalist regime and the radical Islamist al-Qaeda, Senator Clinton insisted that Saddam "has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members."

The Lead-Up to War

Though the 2003 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was inaccurate in a number of respects, it did challenge the notion of any operational ties between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda and questioned some of the more categorical claims by President Bush about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, Senator Clinton didn't even bother to read it. She now claims that it wasn't necessary for her to have actually read the 92-page document herself because she was briefed on the contents of the report. However, since no one on her staff was authorized to read the report, it's unclear who could have actually briefed her.

During the floor debate over the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, Clinton was the only Democratic senator to have categorically accepted the Bush administration's claims regarding Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, Iraq's alleged long-range missile capabilities, and alleged ties to al-Qaeda. (Some Democratic senators accepted some of those claims, but not all of them.)

In the months leading up the war, Senator Clinton chose to ignore the pleas of the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in her state and across the country against the war and similarly brushed off calls by religious leaders, scholars, community activists, and others to oppose it. Perhaps most significant was her refusal to consider the antiwar appeals by leaders of the Catholic Church and virtually every mainline Protestant denomination, which noted that it did not meet the traditional criteria in the Christian tradition for a just war. Instead, Senator Clinton embraced the arguments of the right-wing fundamentalist leadership who supported the war. This categorical rejection of the perspective of the mainstream Christian community raises concerns about her theological perspectives on issues of war and peace.

In March 2003, well after UN weapons inspectors had been allowed to return and engage in unfettered inspections and were not finding any WMDs, Senator Clinton made clear that the United States should invade Iraq anyway. Indeed, she asserted that the only way to avoid war would be for Saddam Hussein to abide by President Bush's ultimatum to resign as president and leave the country, in the apparent belief that the United States had the right to unilaterally make such demands of foreign leaders and to invade and occupy their countries if they refused. Said Senator Clinton, "The president gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to avoid war and the world hopes that Saddam Hussein will finally hear this ultimatum, understand the severity of those words, and act accordingly."

When President Bush launched the invasion soon thereafter and spontaneous protests broke out across the country, Senator Clinton voted in favor of a Republican-sponsored resolution that "commends and supports the efforts and leadership of the President . . . in the conflict against Iraq."

Aftermath of Invasion

Even after the U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq and confirmed that – contrary to Senator Clinton's initial justification for the war – Iraq did not have WMDs, WMD programs, offensive delivery systems, or ties to al-Qaeda, she defended her vote to authorize the invasion anyway. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that December, she declared, "I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote" and was one that "I stand by."

In the face of growing doubts about American forces involved in a deepening counter-insurgency war, she urged "patience" and expressed her concern about the lack of will "to stay the course" among some Americans. "Failure is not an option" in Iraq, she insisted. "We have no option but to stay involved and committed." Indeed, long before President Bush announced his "surge," Senator Clinton called for the United States to send more troops.

During a trip to Iraq in February 2005, she insisted that the U.S. occupation was "functioning quite well," although the security situation had deteriorated so badly that the four-lane divided highway on flat open terrain connecting the airport with the capital could not be secured at the time of her arrival and a helicopter had to transport her to the Green Zone. Though 55 Iraqis and one American soldier were killed during her brief visit, she insisted – in a manner remarkably similar to Vice President Cheney – that the rise in suicide bombings was evidence that the insurgency was failing.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" that same month, she argued that it "would be a mistake" to immediately withdraw U.S. troops or even simply set a timetable for withdrawal, claiming that "We don't want to send a signal to insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain." Less than two years ago, she declared, "I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit." And, just last year, on an appearance on ABC's Nightline, she described how "I've taken a lot of heat from my friends who have said, 'Please, just, you know, throw in the towel and say let's get out by a date certain.' I don't think that's responsible." When Representative John Murtha made his first call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in November 2005, she denounced his effort, calling a withdrawal of U.S. forces "a big mistake."

As recently as last year, when Senator John Kerry sponsored an amendment that would have required the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq in order to advance a political solution to the growing sectarian strife, she voted against it.

Rewriting History

Senator Clinton has never apologized for her vote to authorize the invasion. She insists that her eagerness for the United States to invade Iraq had nothing to do with its vast petroleum reserves. Like President Bush, she claims that she did not lie about her false accusations about Iraq's weapons programs. She says she was misled by faulty intelligence, though she has refused to make public this intelligence that she claims demonstrated that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its WMD.

Senator Clinton has also claimed that Bush – at the time of the resolution authorizing the invasion – had misled her regarding his intention to pursue diplomacy instead of rushing into war. But there was nothing in the war resolution that required him to pursue any negotiations. She has tried to emphasize that she voted in favor of an unsuccessful amendment by Senator Byrd "which would have limited the original authorization to one year." However, this resolution actually meant very little, since it gave President Bush the authority to extend the war authorization "for a period or periods of 12 months each" if he determined that it was "necessary for ongoing or impending military operations against Iraq."

Despite the fact that Iraq had several weeks prior to the October 2002 vote already agreed unconditionally to allow UN inspectors to return, she categorically insisted that her vote "was a necessary step in order to maximize the outcome that did occur in the Security Council with the unanimous vote to send in inspectors."

She has also subsequently claimed that her vote "was clearly intended to demonstrate support for going to the United Nations to put inspectors into Iraq" and was "not a vote for preemptive war." The record shows, however, that Senator Clinton voted against an amendment by Senator Carl Levin that would have allowed for U.S. military action to disarm Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction and weapons systems pursuant to any future UN Security Council resolution authorizing such military actions, which would presumably have taken place had Iraq not allowed the inspectors back in as promised. In other words, she not only was willing to ignore U.S. obligations under the UN Charter that forbids such unilateral military actions by its member states, she tacitly acknowledged that she was unconcerned about supporting UN efforts to bring inspectors back into the country. Indeed, in her floor speech, she warned that this vote "says clearly to Saddam Hussein – this is your last chance – disarm or be disarmed" and the resolution that she did support clearly authorizes President Bush to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing, regardless of whether inspectors were allowed to return to Iraq and regardless of whether the Bush administration received UN support.

Senator Clinton has never criticized the Bush administration for its flagrant violation of the UN Charter or its responsibility for the deaths of the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. She has limited her criticism to the way the administration handled the invasion, implying that, as president, she would do invasions better. Indeed, she insisted that while not regretting her vote to authorize the invasion, she did regret "the way the president used the authority."

Senator Clinton has criticized the administration for not acting to gain more international support for the invasion, ignoring the fact that they actually had tried very hard to do so but failed. The Bush administration was unable to get authorization for the use of force from the UN or, with the exception of Great Britain, to get any substantial troop support from other countries not because they didn't try, but because the vast majority of the international community recognized that an invasion of Iraq was illegal and unnecessary.

Current Policy

A careful look at her current policy toward Iraq reveals that Senator Clinton is not as antiwar as her supporters depict her.

She would withdraw some troops, just as President Bush has been promising to do eventually, but insists that the United States should maintain its "military as well as political mission" in Iraq for the indefinite future for such purposes as countering Iranian influence, protecting the Kurdish minority, preventing a failed state, and supporting the Iraqi military. On ABC's "This Week" in September, she insisted that "withdrawing is dangerous. It has to be done responsibly, prudently, carefully, but we have said that there will be a likely continuing mission against al-Qaeda in Iraq. We have to protect our civilian employees, our embassy that will be there."

If Senator Clinton were really concerned about the threat that al-Qaeda currently poses in Iraq, however, she would never have voted to authorize the invasion, which led to the predictable rise of al-Qaeda and other militant groups in that country. Similarly, there would not be the huge embassy complex nor would there be tens of thousands of civilian employees she insists that U.S. troops are necessary to defend if the United States had not invaded Iraq in the first place. In addition, only because the United States overthrew the stridently secular anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein has Iran gained such influence. And since the risks of a collapse of Iraq's internal security was one of the main arguments presented to her prior to her vote, Clinton should not have voted to authorize the invasion if a failed state was really a concern of hers.

Since most estimates of the numbers of troops needed to carry out these tasks range between 40,000 and 75,000, the best that can be hoped for under a Hillary Clinton presidency is that she would withdraw only about one-half to two-thirds of American combat forces within a year or so of her assuming office. Indeed, she has explicitly refused to promise, if elected president, to withdraw troops by the end of her term in 2013. As Senator Clinton describes, it, "What we can do is to almost take a line sort of north of, between Baghdad and Kirkuk, and basically put our troops into that region – the ones that are going to remain for our anti-terrorism mission; for our northern support mission; for our ability to respond to the Iranians; and to continue to provide support, if called for, for the Iraqis." This hardly constitutes a withdrawal.

Senator Clinton tries to downplay the risk of keeping U.S. forces bogged down indefinitely by emphasizing that she would put greater emphasis on training the Iraqi armed forces. But much of the Iraqi armed forces are more loyal to their respective sectarian militias than they are to protecting Iraq as a whole. Nor has she expressed much concern that the Iraqi armed forces and police have engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses. As with her backing of unconditional military assistance and security training to scores of other allied governments that engage in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations, she appears unconcerned not only with the immorality of such a policy but the long-term strategic risks from the blowback that would result from the United States becoming identified with repressive regimes.

Little Difference from Bush

As her record indicates, Senator Clinton's position on Iraq differs very little from that of President Bush. For her to receive the nomination for president would in effect be an endorsement by the Democratic Party of the Iraq war.

In 2004, the Democrats selected a nominee who also voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, falsely claimed that Iraq still had WMDs, and – at that time – insisted on maintaining U.S. troops in that country. As a result, Senator John Kerry failed to mobilize the party's antiwar base and went down to defeat. What timid concerns Kerry did raise about President Bush's handling of the Iraq war during the campaign were used by the Bush campaign to focus attention away from the war itself and highlight the Democratic nominee's changing positions. Had the Democrats instead nominated someone who had opposed the war from the beginning, the debate that fall would have been not about Senator Kerry's supposed "flip-flopping" but the tragic decision to illegally invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us and the squandering of American lives and tax dollars that have resulted.

If the Democrats select another war supporter as their nominee in 2008, the result may well be the same as 2004. Large numbers of people will refuse to vote for the Democratic nominee as part of a principled stance against voting for someone who authorized and subsequently supported the Iraq war. And Republicans will highlight the Democratic nominee's shifting positions on Iraq as evidence that their opponent is simply an opportunistic politician rather than the kind of decisive leader the country needs.

 

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  • Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

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