Jeb Bush has now been bludgeoned into submission on Iraq, a development that is remarkable when you step back and look at how quickly the Republican consensus on that topic has changed. Two weeks ago you wouldn't have predicted that most of the Republicans would now say the war should never have been launched, but that's where we've come, mostly because of the eagerness of Bush's opponents to make him squirm. Now that he's come around, it's time for some other people to answer questions about the Iraq War—not just what they should have or would have done in 2002 and 2003, but what they've learned since. And that means Hillary Clinton.
Much as she might enjoy watching Jeb Bush suffer, Clinton is surely none too eager to talk about this topic, given that in all likelihood she would have been elected president in 2008 had it not been for Iraq. But she needs to be asked questions about it—lots of them.
Clinton wouldn't have any trouble with the "If we knew now then what we know now" question, because that's how she has explained her Iraq vote for years, saying that hindsight shows that her vote in favor of the 2002 war resolution was wrong. But she ought to answer why she didn't know then.
Republicans would like us all to believe that in 2002 and 2003 everyone was in agreement that Iraq posed a terrifying threat to the United States and if we didn't invade, then they would surely attack us with their fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But this is just false. Despite the unstoppable momentum for war, dissent was everywhere at the time.
As I wrote yesterday, the idea that the war was a result of "faulty intelligence" is a myth. The fact is that "the intelligence" on Iraq was a multi-faceted thing, and even at the time people understood that the Bush administration was manipulating it to its own ends, pressuring the intelligence community, cherry-picking the most nefarious-sounding bits, and ignoring the weight of evidence that there was no gigantic arsenal of WMD in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein's government was not in fact in league with al-Qaeda. The administration got the intelligence it demanded, and what's most important to remember now is that plenty of people understood that at the time. While most of the media were beating the drums for war, there were outlets and individual reporters raising doubts about the line the administration was pushing and the specific pieces of evidence they were offering. Supposedly damning pieces of information like the uranium yellowcake from Niger and the aluminum tubes were quickly debunked. There was an active movement protesting the upcoming war. The administration's campaign of fear was so heavy-handed that no observer could doubt that they wanted war at all costs, no matter what the evidence actually said.
And many of Clinton's colleagues were not fooled. Twenty-one of the 50 Democrats then in the Senate voted against the war resolution, as did 126 of the 209 Democrats in the House. And let's not mince words about those who voted in favor of the war: It was, above all, an act of cowardice. They were afraid they'd be called unpatriotic, just as so many already had in the wake of September 11. They were afraid the war would be quick and easy like the first Gulf War, and they'd look foolish for doubting it. And most of all, the ones who wanted to run for president—including Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, and Joe Biden—were afraid they'd be attacked as weak, just as previous Democratic presidential candidates were. So they voted to give George W. Bush permission to go to war, with catastrophic consequences.
Republicans often defend their support of the war by saying that many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, looked at the same intelligence they did and came to the same conclusion. But it's also true, as Greg Sargent pointed out, that many of Clinton's colleagues looked at the same intelligence she did and came to a different conclusion. So what did she miss? What did the experience teach her about the way intelligence is produced and used? And what about everything that happened afterward?
I'm not particularly worried that Clinton is gung-ho to start another Middle East war, as some of the Republicans running for president seem to be. But the Iraq War continues to cast a long shadow over American foreign policy. Hillary Clinton got it wrong. We deserve to know as much as we can about why that was, how she thinks about her mistake today, and what kind of effect it would have on her decision-making if she becomes president.