Twelve Years Later, Hillary Clinton Still Struggles to Explain Her Iraq War Vote

Back in 2002, many liberals (myself included) thought that all the Democrats who voted for the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq did so out of a simple craven fear of being tarred as soft on terror, not because they actually believed Iraq was a terrible threat to the United States. Whether that is true of Hillary Clinton is something we'll never know, but when she ran for president in 2008, she struggled mightily to explain her vote in favor of the war. Barack Obama, on the other hand, was pure in voters' eyes on this question—not only hadn't he been in Congress to vote on it, he had opposed it as a state senator.

I'm guessing that Clinton didn't expect she'd have to revisit this question over and over as she approached a 2016 presidential run, but with Iraq now mired in a new civil war (can we call it that yet?), it's coming up again. And yesterday, she gave this answer to a question about when she decided to finally declare her vote for the war to be a mistake:

I kept trying to say "Well, if we knew then what we know now it would not have ever come for a vote," all of which was true, but just sort of avoided the fact of my saying: "You know I just got it wrong, plain and simple. I made a mistake." I thought a lot about that, because people said, well, "You're not saying you made a mistake for political reasons." Well, in fact, in the Democratic Party at that time, the smart political decision, as so many of my colleagues did, was to come out and say: "Terrible mistake, shouldn't have done it," and, you know, blame the Bush administration. I had this sense that I had voted for it, and we had all these young men and women over there, and it was a terrible battle environment. I knew some of the young people who were there, and I was very close to one Marine lieutenant who led a mixed platoon of Americans and Iraqis in the first battle for Fallujah. So I felt like I couldn't break faith with them. Maybe that doesn't make sense to anybody else but me, but that's how I felt about it. So I kept temporizing, and I kept avoiding saying it, because I didn't want there to be any feeling that I was backing off or undercutting my support for this very difficult mission in Iraq.

I'm sure some people will simply dismiss this as Clinton hiding behind the troops and their feelings for her own ends, as politicians are wont to do. (George Bush, for instance, spent much of 2004 attacking John Kerry for saying the Iraq War was a mistake on the grounds that it would demoralize the troops.) But there's still something to it, even though the question is a complicated one.

Obviously, soldiers want to believe that they're fighting in a noble cause whose successful completion will bring peace and happiness to the land currently being torn apart. Their families, too, want to believe that, particularly if their sons or daughters lost their lives in the effort. It must be terribly painful for people who had loved ones die in Iraq to see the way the country is spiralling downward now, as though it was all for nothing. If you were talking just to them, you'd focus on the honor and courage of their loved ones' service and not the appallingly foolish decision to launch the war in the first place, not only because that's what's probably most important to them but because you want to be kind and considerate.

But when you're a leader, there are times when you have to speak the truth to the whole country, even if it's going to be painful for some to hear. And in 2008, there wouldn't have been anything stopping Clinton or anyone else from saying two things simultaneously: first, that the people serving in Iraq deserved all our support in every way possible, and second that no matter how courageously and competently they were doing their jobs in the most trying circumstances imaginable, we should never have sent them there. The one who "broke faith" with the men and women in uniform was George W. Bush, when he sent them off to fight a needless war, a war from which 4,500 of them never returned and tens of thousands more came back maimed in body and spirit. Being honest with them and everyone else would not have broken faith.

Bush and his supporters may have tried to convince everyone that if you didn't support the war then you weren't "supporting the troops," but Clinton was under no obligation to accept that presumption. Indeed, she was in a unique position to push back against it, as the senator with the highest profile and the war's most prominent Democratic supporter. Yes, it might have required a little more explaining. But she had plenty of time. And as for the troops, they're not dumb; they understood better than anyone what a disaster the war was. They could have taken it.

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