Although Hillary Clinton has many advantages in the current Presidential campaign (advantages of policy, programs, and, yes, personality) surely her greatest strength vis-à-vis her principal primary opponent is in the area of foreign and global policy--including matters of war and peace, global development and economics, our war against terrorism, and even climate change and preserving the environment. This writer believes that the success of the next President in dealing with these issues will define her or his legacy; indeed the survival of the human race may well turn on how these issues are handled over the next eight years.
In the face of Secretary Clinton's undisputed strength in these areas, when Bernie Sanders is asked how his experience measures up to hers in the "Commander In Chief" category, he invariably comes up with a single Talking Point.
Unfortunately that Talking Point, presented in Bernie's shallow vernacular, simply isn't true. It usually goes something like this:
The key foreign policy vote in modern American history was the 2002 vote as to whether we should go into Iraq. I made the decision not to go to war. Hillary Clinton on the other hand, voted for the war...
Like many simplistic and "sound bite" arguments of the modern era, and of Sanders in particular, the argument that Hillary Clinton supported the war George W. Bush prosecuted in Iraq is nonsense. This falsehood can be broken down into five sub-myths.
Myth #1: The 2002 Congressional Resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, on which Hillary Clinton and a large majority of U.S. Senators voted yes, gave George W. Bush "carte blanche" to pursue war against Saddam Hussein.
False! In fact exactly the opposite is true: While that Resolution did indeed authorize President Bush, under strict requirements of the 1973 War Powers Act, to use force, Section 3(b) of the Act also required that sanctions or diplomacy be fully employed before force was used, i.e. force was to be used only as "necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq," and to do so only upon the President certifying to Congress that "diplomatic or other peaceful means" would be insufficient to defang Saddam.
Despite those legal conditions, the following year we were at war--and millions of us were astonished that the Bush Administration, running roughshod over Congress's requirements, hadn't given more time for U.N. inspectors to complete their job of searching for weapons of mass destruction.
Myth #2: By voting for the 2002 Congressional Resolution which authorized (but was also designed to limit) George Bush's power to wage war in Iraq, Hillary Clinton cannot be considered a "progressive" Democrat.
False! On October 11, 2002, Clinton joined a strong majority of Democrats, including liberal and left-center Democrats like Tom Harkin, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, in voting in favor of the Resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. Later on, Clinton came to deeply regret giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt on the Resolution, and she has plainly admitted her mistake. Yet it is a "mistake" which many other senators of conscience made with her; if Clinton bears any blame for the resulting war, it is because she placed too much reliance on legislation that was actually designed to check a president's war-making ability but instead inadvertently gave that president cover to run roughshod over the interests of both Congress and the public at large.
Myth #3: At the time of her vote, Clinton was very supportive of going to war in order to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
False! While Clinton quickly turned against the war, another piece of "lost history" is the deep concern she expressed at the very time of her vote in the fall of 2002. Given the Resolution's several prerequisites to waging war, Clinton's vote was for a Resolution that was also supposed to restrain the President's ability to wage war, and her 2002 floor speech leading up to consideration of the Resolution made this clear:
My vote is not a vote for any new doctrine of preemption or for unilateralism or for the arrogance of American power or purpose, all of which carry grave dangers for our Nation, the rule of international law, and the peace and security of people throughout the world.
These words presaged the doctrine of "smart power" Clinton later espoused as Secretary of State. Her vision is neither interventionist on the one hand nor hesitant and supine on the other, but rather something in between: a belief that the United States is the indispensable leader--in a troubled world where such leadership matters--but a belief still grounded in reality, the limits of American power and, perhaps most significantly, the importance of collaboration with like-minded actors who can be found in every corner of the globe. Meanwhile, as Clinton has said many times, then as now, armed intervention is only to be used as a last resort.
Myth #4: At the time of the 2002 vote, the "architecture" of George Bush's Presidency was well understood, including a philosophy and history of carrying out pre-emptive wars.
False! In 2002, Clinton palpably feared a precipitous rush to war, but was willing to trust a leader who at the time was only in the second year of his presidency, having just suffered the most calamitous attack on the homeland since Pearl Harbor--and, notably, whose only international venture up until then was a widely applauded campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Al Qaida's sanctuary of Afghanistan. While it was already well known that Bush had neocon advisers like Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, the true extent of their influence had not yet been manifested. (Colin Powell was also an important adviser and George W. was, after all, George H.W. Bush's son.)
Myth #5. Hillary Clinton's vote belies support for an "Imperial Presidency" that brooks no dissent, and disrespects Congress and other partners, foreign or domestic.
False! To the contrary, one of the reasons Hillary Clinton is so well qualified to be president is because she deeply respects the rule of law and, in particular, appropriate Congressional prerogatives and the Constitutional principle of checks and balances. (Indeed, this is precisely why she voted the way she did on the 2002 Iraq Resolution.) In this vein, she is also uniquely capable of reaching across the aisle to forge common-sense solutions, a "progressive who delivers results," as she says.
One big truth: Hillary Clinton possesses another, singular, quality: she has the capacity to learn from the hard lessons that our Iraq adventure taught us, including from the misplaced trust she and others conferred on an Administration that brought so much grief to this country. She has said as much in her memoir, Hard Choices:
As much as I might have wanted to, I could never change my vote on Iraq. But I could try to help us learn the right lessons from that war and apply them to Afghanistan and other challenges where we had fundamental security interests. I was determined to do exactly that when facing future hard choices, with more experience, wisdom, skepticism, and humility.
It is clear that Hillary Clinton is a candidate for president who has learned from the lessons of history, and is capable of applying them to the future; in fact this quality is a critical ingredient of great leadership.