Reclaiming History on Hillary Clinton's 2002 Iraq War Vote
When Hillary Clinton was challenged on her Iraq war vote at last month's Democratic debate, the front-running candidate pointed to President Obama's 2008 selection of herself as Secretary of State as affirmation of his continuing confidence in her judgment on matters of war and peace.
This wasn't merely a deft response on Clinton's part. Rather, there was good reason for Barack Obama to choose Clinton as our Number One diplomat, first-among-equals Cabinet Secretary, and, ultimately, close adviser--but it is a reason that eludes every other candidate or journalist who makes an unvarnished reference to "Hillary's vote in favor of the Iraq war."
While Obama's 2008 campaign successfully represented Hillary Clinton's war vote as an important distinction between the two candidates, the reality is that in 2002 then-U.S. Senator Clinton's position on Iraq was much more closely aligned with then-State Senator Barack Obama than almost anyone realizes.
Here are the facts: on October 11, 2002, Clinton joined a strong majority of Democrats, including liberal and left-center Democrats like John Kerry, Tom Harkin, and Joe Biden in voting "yes" on the Resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.
While that resolution did indeed authorize President Bush, under strict requirements of the 1973 War Powers Act, to use force, it remains largely forgotten that Clinton's vote authorized using such force 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.
That Clinton's vote was predicated on a threat that did not actually exist has been much discussed this year--and there is little debate that Clinton would have opposed the Resolution in the absence of supposedly hard evidence of Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Much less discussed is the Resolution's requirement that sanctions or diplomacy be fully employed before force was used, as Section 3(b) of the Act plainly provides. Nevertheless, five short months after the Resolution was passed, we were at war--and many of us were astonished that the Bush Administration hadn't given more time for U.N. inspectors to complete their job of searching for weapons of mass destruction, as the Resolution seemed to require.
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.
Close observers of Hillary Clinton will realize how much these words presaged the doctrine of "smart power" she 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 are present on every continent on earth.
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.
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 that was unarguably made in good faith--and one 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.
Indeed, 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." (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.)
Hillary Clinton possesses another quality: she has the capacity to learn from the hard lessons that our Iraq adventure taught us, including from the misplaced trust she 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.
For this writer, it is comforting to know that in Hillary Clinton we have a candidate for president who has learned from the lessons of history, and is capable of applying them to the future; in fact this singular quality is a critical ingredient of great leadership.