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Can Hillary Clinton Recover From Her Support Of The Iraq War?


With the news that Condoleeza Rice has been hounded from a commencement speaking engagement at Rutgers University by left-wing faculty and student protests on the grounds that Rice “had played ‘a prominent role in the administration’s effort to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq,” the question that haunted Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign must be asked again: can the Democratic base ever forgive her support for launching that war? The answer, in all likelihood, is that the Democratic Party’s base will forgive and forget – not only out of political expediency and ignorance of history but because, deep in their hearts, they do not really believe their own extreme rhetoric about the Iraq War.

Hawks of a Feather

Unquestionably, if you take the campaign against Rice on its own terms – that “misleading” the nation to war over Saddam’s WMD programs is a war crime or something like it, making one ineligible to be received in polite company – Hillary is similarly guilty. Consider how then-Senator Clinton herself justified that vote:

In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

It is clear, however, 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. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security.

…In the case of Iraq, recent comments indicate that one or two Security Council members might never approve force against Saddam Hussein until he has actually used chemical, biological, or God forbid, nuclear weapons.

…While the military outcome is not in doubt, should we put troops on the ground, there is still the matter of Saddam Hussein’s biological and chemical weapons. Today he has maximum incentive not to use them or give them away. If he did either, the world would demand his immediate removal. Once the battle is joined, however, with the outcome certain, he will have maximum incentive to use weapons of mass destruction and to give what he can’t use to terrorists who can torment us with them long after he is gone. We cannot be paralyzed by this possibility, but we would be foolish to ignore it. And according to recent reports, the CIA agrees with this analysis.

…perhaps my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our nation. I want this President, or any future President, to be in the strongest possible position to lead our country in the United Nations or in war…I want to insure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and for our support for the President’s efforts to wage America’s war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

…Over eleven years have passed since the UN called on Saddam Hussein to rid himself of weapons of mass destruction as a condition of returning to the world community. Time and time again he has frustrated and denied these conditions.

The hairsplitting defense typically offered by those who wish to drive Rice and other senior Bush officials from civilized society while pledging their votes, money and support to make Hillary the next President is that Hillary was just one Senator, following the Bush Administration’s lead. Now, if you regard the Iraq War as a question of ordinary politics and statesmanship, that might be a defense, albeit one that shouldn’t inspire confidence in Hillary’s judgment among diehard critics of the war. But if your actual, serious opinion is that the war is some sort of war crime, “I was only following the leaders” is pretty well-recognized as not being a defense.

And besides that, Hillary was not just any Senator. She had been the First Lady of the recently-departed Administration for eight years, and as her floor speech alluded, she was trading on the credibility that came from her husband dealing with intelligence reports on Saddam’s WMD programs throughout those years. Moreover, the Democrats were leaderless and deeply divided in 2002. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, 2000 Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman and 1988 presidential candidate Joe Biden were supporting the war, but 2000 Presidential nominee Al Gore, House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, and Senate “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy were opposed. In that setting, the Clintons – the first two-term Democratic president since FDR and his wife – were still de facto the most popular and influential figures in the party. A vigorous statement of opposition to the war by Hillary, bearing at least the implicit imprimatur of her husband (her chief national security adviser at the time), would have carried enormous weight. And with Democratic control of the Senate until the 2002 elections, those votes were critical

Why did she choose, instead, to support and justify a war that Democratic partisans now regard as a war crime, beyond the pale of civilized discourse and disagreement? The New York Times suggested in 2007 that it was her fear of gender politics: “Clinton knew she could never advance her career — or win the presidency, especially — if she didn’t prove that she was tough enough to be commander in chief. Female candidates, it’s presumed, have often suffered as a result of the stereotype that they could never be as strong as men.” That’s a terrible reason to vote to send a nation to war. But as her speech and conduct at the time made clear, there was likely more that went into her thinking than that – thinking not so different, after all, from that of the Bush Administration.

I Read Your Book

In 1998, in the midst of a decade of sanctions on Saddam’s regime, WMD intelligence combined with Saddam’s refusal to cooperate with required weapons inspections had led President Clinton to launch a large-scale air strike against Iraq aimed entirely at suspected WMD sites, as described by President Clinton’s Defense Secretary at the time:

During the course of DESERT FOX, American and British war planes flew more than 650 strike and strike support sorties. Our ships launched more than 325 Tomahawk cruise missiles and U.S. Air Force B-52s launched more than 90 cruise missiles. In all, we attacked almost 100 targets, all related to our overall mission objectives….With respect to the manufacture of chemical and biological agents, as I’ve indicated time and time again, our goal was to diminish his capacity to deliver such chemicals or biological or even nuclear weapons and to strike those facilities we could identify that possibly solely produced them. But we were always conscious of the fact that you could have a facility inside of a hospital or a fertilizer plant, a dual use facility, and we took that into account in seeking to balance the need to reduce his capacity to pose a threat to the region and at the same time, not engaging in the wholesale destruction of the Iraqi people.

The conclusion from that presser? It wasn’t over:

Q: Secretary Cohen, regarding the inspectors, in addition to the UNSCOM inspectors, who call themselves in effect, the IA — International Atomic Energy Agency Inspectors, have also been required to leave Iraq and it’s believed by some they also may not be able to return. And those inspectors were widely considered effective. I mean, is that a price you’re going to have to pay, now having done what you’ve done?
A: Saddam will have to make a determination as to whether or not he’s prepared to fully cooperate with those inspectors as well. To the extent that they remain outside of Iraq, there will be no chance of closing any files in the future. And so, the sanctions, again, will continue to remain in place. So he does not benefit from keeping them out, and he does not benefit from keeping the UNSCOM team out either.
Q: He benefits in terms of an ease[ing] in developing a nuclear program.
A: Well, we are going to continue to watch him very closely. We have — we will make every effort to compensate for the lack of those inspectors. But by the same token, he is going to be precluded from getting relief from the sanctions and that is very important to him. He wanted to get the inspectors out and get relief from the sanctions. He may have gotten the inspectors out at least temporarily. He will not get relief from the sanctions.
Q: Do you think it’s just a matter of time before the United States will have to conduct another such operation against Iraq?
A: Wouldn’t want to speculate on that. We’re prepared to conduct future military operations, but that will depend upon Saddam’s actions.

Of course, those actions had not improved between 1998 and 2002; that’s one reason why even Gore, in a debate with George W. Bush in 2000, had pledged that “I want to give robust support to the groups that are trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein.” The intelligence community throughout the United States and around the globe, from one country to the next, agreed in 1998 and still agreed in 2002 that Saddam had non-trivial WMD capabilities and was scheming to obtain more, and scores of leading Democrats believed the same thing. That was the view of the Clinton Administration before Desert Fox, and it continued to be the view of U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies after Desert Fox:

[T]he German Federal Intelligence Service held the bleakest view of all, arguing that Iraq might be able to build a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel, Russia, Britain, China, and even France held positions similar to that of the United States; France’s President Jacques Chirac told Time magazine [in February 2003], “There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right … in having decided Iraq should be disarmed.”

Indeed, Saddam’s possession of usable stocks of WMD was believed at the time by senior figures in Iraq’s own military, who were stunned when Saddam disclosed to them in December 2002 that he lacked chemical or biological stockpiles. And from what we learned later on, much of the fault for misunderstanding lay with Saddam himself. He contended, after his capture, that he had deliberately tried to give the appearance of having WMD in order to deter Iran. Ironically, later U.S. analyses found that Saddam’s frantic efforts to scrub former WMD sites in order to give selective access to inspectors had been interpreted as a different kind of cover-up. The very scope of Saddam’s earlier WMD programs made the task of securing all its weapons daunting – a Wikileaks release of previously-secret documents in 2010 illustrated that “for years after [2003], U.S. troops continued to find chemical weapons labs, encounter insurgent specialists in toxins and uncover weapons of mass destruction”:

In August 2004, for instance, American forces surreptitiously purchased what they believed to be containers of liquid sulfur mustard, a toxic “blister agent” used as a chemical weapon since World War I. The troops tested the liquid, and “reported two positive results for blister.” The chemical was then “triple-sealed and transported to a secure site” outside their base.

…Meanwhile, the second battle of Fallujah was raging in Anbar province. In the southeastern corner of the city, American forces came across a “house with a chemical lab … substances found are similar to ones (in lesser quantities located a previous chemical lab.” The following day, there’s a call in another part of the city for explosive experts to dispose of a “chemical cache.”

Nearly three years later, American troops were still finding WMD in the region. An armored Buffalo vehicle unearthed a cache of artillery shells “that was covered by sacks and leaves under an Iraqi Community Watch checkpoint. “The 155mm rounds are filled with an unknown liquid, and several of which are leaking a black tar-like substance.” Initial tests were inconclusive. But later, “the rounds tested positive for mustard.”

And what Saddam was actually doing was hardly harmless. For example, the Congressional testimony of Iraq Study Group head David Kay emphasized some of the threats presented even by a more accurate post-invasion picture of what Saddam had been up to:

Iraq made determined efforts to retain some capabilities for biological warfare. It maintained an undeclared network of laboratories and other facilities within the apparatus of its security services, and as Kay put it, “this clandestine capability was suitable for preserving BW expertise, BW-capable facilities, and continuing R&D—all key elements for maintaining a capability for resuming BW production.” To disguise its biological-warfare programs Baghdad had scientists working on overt projects that were closely related to proscribed activities.

Iraq seemed to have been most aggressive in pursuing proscribed missiles. In Kay’s words, “detainees and cooperative sources indicate that beginning in 2000 Saddam ordered the development of ballistic missiles with ranges of at least [240 miles] and up to [620 miles] and that measures to conceal these projects from [UN inspectors] were initiated in late 2002, ahead of the arrival of inspectors.” The Iraqis were also working on clustering liquid-fueled rocket engines in order to produce a longer-range missile, and were trying to convert certain surface-to-air missiles into surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 150 miles. Most troubling of all, the ISG uncovered evidence that from 1999 to 2002 Iraq had negotiated with North Korea to buy technology for No Dong missiles, which have a range of 800 miles.

Even after his capture, Saddam insisted to his FBI interrogator that he had planned to reconstitute his entire WMD program – chemical, biological, and nuclear. His efforts to corrupt and emasculate the sanctions regime gave him hope – not an irrational hope – that this strategy would prevail.

Subsequent efforts to condemn the truthfulness of the Bush Administration and the Blair and Howard governments in the U.K. and Australia have tended to focus on the existence of disagreements in the intel community over particular pieces of evidence and the timelines that could be drawn from them. And indeed, there were many such dissents at the time, and more than a few items of evidence that look flimsy or worse with hindsight. But the trees should not be mistaken for the forest. The people who thought the intelligence was completely wrong about Saddam’s WMD programs were, for the most part, people who had no clearance to read any of it. Even Barack Obama, who defeated Hillary in 2008 in part by deploying the Iraq vote against her, refused when running for the Senate in 2004 to say he would have voted against the Iraq War if he had had access to classified intelligence at the time, and insisted, as the battle shifted to countering the insurgency, that “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage” – hardly the language of a crime against humanity. Even Obama had to resort to revisionist history on the issue of WMD intelligence; there’s no record of him questioning before the war whether Saddam had WMD. Here’s what State Senator Obama said at the time:

Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity….Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.

In the end, the argument against American policymakers, in the Bush and Clinton camps alike, is that they committed a war crime by failing to read more closely and skeptically the particulars of specific items of evidence in order to call into question the intra- and inter-governmental consensus. But if that is your thesis, it’s hard to excuse Senator Clinton, who apparently did not even read the 90-page National Intelligence Estimate, according to some reports due to the fact that she only had 10 days in which to read it. Given that the NIE was less than a tenth the length of the Affordable Care Act, one is nostalgic for the days when Senators were asked to do so much less reading – and yet, it was too much for her to digest.

Causes and Reasons

If anything, Senator Clinton’s reliance on the WMD rationale is considerably more culpable, viewed through the lens of “war guilt,” than that of the Bush Administration, because it was much more central to her decision. Liberal ire over WMD intelligence was so acute because Democrats and liberals who did support the war – Hillary among them – did so almost entirely as an exercise in disarmament, consistent with the broader liberal tendency to view both war and crime as a question of weaponry rather than a question of behavior.

By contrast, conservative and Republican supporters of the war inside and outside the Bush Administration always saw the WMD issue as merely one part of a broader set of arguments for war. I’ve previously addressed the grand strategy behind that view, which focused on igniting a disruptive regional revolution that would unsettle the corrupt and oppressive status quo across the Greater Middle East and end the dynamic by which that region’s “secular” and religious leaders alike directed terrorism outwards in order to distract from their stagnant despotisms at home. But there were specific reasons as well, which fall under three general headings:

1. The U.S. and Iraq were still formally at war in 2002. The 1991 Gulf War did not end with a peace treaty; it ended with a cease-fire conditioned on Iraq’s compliance with a number of U.N. resolutions, and Iraq was failing to comply with several of those, including shooting at U.S. airplanes enforcing the no-fly zone, refusing to cooperate with weapons inspections, and funding Palestinian terrorists outside its borders. Every element of the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2002-03 must be evaluated in light of this posture. The issue in 2002 was not whether to pre-emptively invade a nation with which we were at peace, but whether to accept, after a decade of Saddam flouting these terms, that we simply would not enforce them – with all the consequences that entailed for the credibility of future agreements with the U.S.

2. Saddam cheered the 9/11 attacks and openly supported terrorism. The September 11 terrorist attacks were such an unprovoked atrocity that regimes around the world, even those implacably hostile to the United States, rushed to offer their support, their sympathy, or at least their willingness to disassociate themselves from the attacks. Almost alone in the world, though, Iraq’s state-run media openly celebrated the attacks while the wounds were still raw. The Ba’athist regime put up murals cheering the attacks. While even Qaddafi, Arafat and (disingenuously) the Taliban were offering condolonces, Saddam was gloating:

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq said the United States deserved Tuesday’s attacks in New York and Washington as the fruits “of its crimes against humanity.”

Under the headline “America burns,” the official newspaper Al-Iraq said that “what happened in the United States yesterday is a lesson for all tyrants, oppressors and criminals.”

Overnight an official Iraqi statement said: “The American cowboys are reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity.”

For myself, I took rather personally people cheering for attempts at murdering me. President Bush undoubtedly felt the same way, given that Saddam had hired terrorists to blow up George H.W. Bush on a 1993 visit to Kuwait:

[In a nationally televised June 1993 address, President] Clinton said he ordered [a Tomahawk missile] attack [on Iraq] after receiving “compelling evidence” from U.S. intelligence officials that Bush had been the target of an assassination plot and that the plot was “directed and pursued by the Iraqi Intelligence Service.”

“It was an elaborate plan devised by the Iraqi government and directed against a former president of the United States because of actions he took as president,” Clinton said. Bush led the coalition that drove Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “As such, the Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans,” Clinton said.

After two months of investigation and mounting evidence, Clinton became convinced during two “exhaustive and exhausting” meetings last week that Iraq was indeed behind a foiled car-bomb plot to kill Bush during his visit to Kuwait April 14-16, a senior administration official said.

…Clinton was persuaded to act by three kinds of evidence, a senior intelligence official said last night. First, key suspects in the plot confessed to FBI agents in Kuwait. Second, FBI bomb experts painstakingly linked the captured car bomb to previous explosives made in Iraq. Third, unspecified intelligence assessments concluded that Saddam meant seriously the threats he has made against Bush. Other classified intelligence sources supported this analysis, the official said.

The combination made the CIA “highly confident that the Iraqi government, at the highest levels, directed its intelligence service to assassinate former president Bush,” said the intelligence official.

…Clinton also had the confessions of the two alleged leaders of the 16 suspects arrested by Kuwait when the plot was uncovered. Both are Iraqi nationals. Ra’ad Asadi and Wali Abdelhadi Ghazali told FBI investigators detailed to Kuwait that they met in Basra, Iraq, on April 12 with “individuals they believed to be associated with the Iraqi Intelligence Service,” according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.

They were given a vehicle loaded with hidden explosives. Ghazali told the FBI he was recruited specifically to kill Bush. Asadi also told the FBI he was to guide the car bomb, driven by his partner, to Kuwait University, where Bush was to be honored by the Emir of Kuwait for his leadership in the gulf war.

Saddam also openly paid bounties to suicide bombers in Israel, and harbored notorious terrorists like Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas (names anyone who had followed terrorism in the 1980s would know all too well). And those were just the things done more or less in the open. There was never a realistic prospect that any War on Terror – as such was planned and proclaimed in 2001-03 – could succeed if a regime openly sympathetic to the terrorists and well-established in its willingness to offer safe haven in its territory was occupying the historic strategic crossroads of the entire region. If Saddam’s capabilities were ambiguous – our intelligence about foreign WMD programs has always been ambiguous and often wrong since 1948, as frequently underestimating as overestimating nuclear capabilities in particular – his motivations to hate America and move against it at every opportunity were too obvious to ignore.

3. Neither deterrence, containment nor insurrection was an alternative. For decades, the most hard-headed thinkers and actors in American defense policy had relied on tried-and-true measures to project American power short of war: contain the enemy, deter him with threats of unilateral or mutually assured destruction, and support internal insurrections to deploy his own people against him. These are always preferable ways to deal with tyrants than invading their countries, when available – but by 2002, all had failed in the case of Iraq. Saddam’s behavior had long since put paid to the idea that he could be reliably deterred, not least because his insular and paranoid worldview made him interpret events very differently from how Washington did. A regime subject to conventional deterrence would not have invaded Kuwait and Iran, launched missiles at Israel, menaced Saudi Arabia, hired terrorists to blow up a recent U.S. President, gassed its own people, harbored known terrorists, and defied the terms of a cease-fire backed by the U.S. and the U.N. Time and again over a decade, American policymakers predicted that Saddam would be brought to heel, only to be stunned by his recalcitrance and his reckless daring. The chronic inability to predict what he might do next had come to haunt the national security establishment. As recently as the 2000 presidential campaign, Democrats had excoriated the failure to finally resolve the Iraq issue by removing Saddam from power in 1991.

Meanwhile, containment was conspicuously failing, and in fact was failing worse than it appeared, as Saddam’s thoroughgoing corruption of the U.N. Oil-For-Food program had bought off some of the European governments whose support was needed to continue the containment regime. Sanctions had been manipulated by Saddam to fall mainly on the Iraqi people, giving him not only an external propaganda victory (which was gradually eroding the willingness of the international community to maintain sanctions as a permanent fixture) but also an all-purpose alibi for the miserable state of his country. Maintenance of the no-fly zone engaged the U.S. in a costly and draining open-ended military commitment in Saudi Arabia, from which our only exit strategy was either to remove Saddam’s regime or admit defeat at its hands. Osama bin Laden rather famously claimed the U.S. military presence on the Arabian Peninsula – to contain Saddam – as a provocation against Islam; the irrationality of this does not change the fact that he would not have made that claim if he did not think it had propaganda value. We were trapped, with the only ways out being victory or defeat.

And insurrection, while the preferred solution among neoconservatives and the U.S. Congress (even, as noted above, Vice President Gore) for most of the 1990s, was a dead end. Congress had, by statute, endorsed regime change in Iraq as the official policy of the United States in 1998, but without consequence. The George H.W. Bush Administration had encouraged the opposition to rise up at the conclusion of the Gulf War, but it had been too weak to succeed without U.S. support, which was not forthcoming. In the years since, the U.S. had made some half-hearted efforts to offer its patronage to Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, but never developed it or any other internal or expatriate group into a realistic military threat to Saddam on the order of the Nicaraguan Contras of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Saddam’s police state routinely tortured and killed anyone who might generate a homegrown alternative to his rule, ensuring that any alternative would need to be imposed by external force. Saddam also practiced the ancient art of divide et impera with Iraq’s disparate ethnic and sectarian groups, sowing seeds that would produce violence upon his departure from the scene no matter when it came or how it was accomplished.

The intensive focus on the WMD rationale from 2004 to 2008 served the political purposes of Democrats at the time, because it was a vulnerability for Bush. It also served the ideological ends of liberals, because it proposed to make disarmament the sole test of whether the war was justifiable. But in order to defend the likely nomination of another candidate who actually voted for the war and spoke out vigorously in favor of the WMD rationale, it may make more sense for Democrats to reconsider the importance of some of the other reasons why we went to war, stop worrying and learn to love them.

Insurgency and War Guilt

The other problem with hyperventilations about America’s decision to invade Iraq and topple its brutal, oppressive government is that it ignores the fact that the long, hard, bloody slog in Iraq from mid-2003 to December 2011 was not the choice of the American government, which after all is not the world’s only moral actor. In evaluating the prudence of the Iraq War, it of course is reasonable to ask if American policymakers were adequately prepared for the possibility that conventional military victory – which would inevitably be fairly swift and decisive – would be followed by an insurgency that would take longer and be more difficult and bloody to suppress. But efforts to pin moral blame on Bush, Clinton and other American leaders for the lives lost and damage done by the insurgency ignore the reality that the insurgency was a war of choice by the insurgents: an unnecessary and immoral choice for which they and their patrons must answer.

By the time of the end of “major combat operations” against Saddam’s no-longer-existent regime in May 2003 (marked by what is now known as Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech), it was clear to all that the United States wanted to occupy Iraq for as short a period as possible (subject to the hope of negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement that would allow the U.S. military basing rights) and that the U.S. intended to establish a democratic form of self-government for Iraq as soon as feasible. U.S. intentions in both regards were not in any way ambiguous or subject to misinterpretation. If anything, the deficiencies in the Bush Administration’s planning for the possibility of a protracted insurgency was a symptom of its desire to avoid further combat or a long-term occupation in Iraq.

Saddam, of course, had established plans to start a Ba’athist insurgency in the event of an invasion, but after the July 2003 death of his sons and especially his December 2003 capture, there was no reason for anyone to feel compelled to continue such a course. Anyone and everyone in Iraq could have chosen to participate in, and abide by, a new democratic process for Iraqi self-government – not a perfect process, because democracy never is, but a free and independent one. The U.S. had more than half a century of experience helping establish such governments in diverse places and letting them exercise full sovereignty.

Of course, many chose to reject that call and rally to the banners of the foreign terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Ba’athist irredentists, or the Iranian proxy groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. And that reaction arguably served the interests of the United States in drawing radicals from around the region away from terrorist operations against the West and into relatively open battle with the American military. But those were independent moral choices, not the doing of the United States, which sought as best it could to deter them from following that path. The death and destruction that the insurgency created were, every bit of it, the result of the insurgents’ choice to sow the wind in Iraq, and let its people reap the whirlwind.

The Politics of Amnesia

So, what does it all mean in 2016? My guess is that Democratic partisans will simply live with the cognitive dissonance without resolving it; Hillary Clinton’s path to power is too important. Parties have nominated candidates before who were out of step on big issues – issues of war and peace, of conscience and ideology – sometimes not so far in the past. Mitt Romney was the father of a healthcare plan nearly indistinguishable from Obamacare; John Kerry had voted for the Iraq War, as did his running mate and Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008 and 2012; George W. Bush had once been a pro-choice politician, Al Gore once a pro-life politician. But the effort to make out the Iraq War as something deeper and more nefarious than ordinary political decisionmaking puts Hillary’s defenders in an awkward spot, if they take their claimed convictions seriously. The rhetoric of “war criminal!” may be just that: rhetoric to be deployed against Republicans, but conveniently overlooked when the demands of partisan politics require excusing the actions of Democrats. Sociologists have observed that the precipitous decline in anti-war protests under Obama was strongly linked to Democratic partisanship: “the antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”.

Moreover, the Obama coalition has made the Democrats increasingly dependent on young voters, many of whom consider the Iraq debates of 2002 irrelevant ancient history. An 18 year old voter in 2008 was 12 then; an 18 year old voter in 2016 was 4. Many may have no idea that Hillary supported the war, and nobody has an incentive to inform them (other than dark horses Rick Santorum and Mike Pence, none of the likely GOP candidates in 2016 were in Congress in 2002, and none is likely to want to rehash the old Iraq debates). It’s this attitude of encountering the world forever anew that led former Obama Administration NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor to dismiss questions about the September 2012 Benghazi attacks with “Dude, this was two years ago.” Compared to Benghazi, the Iraq War is the Stone Age. In fact, that promises to be Secretary Clinton’s approach to basically every question about her two decades in Washington as well as the two decades in Arkansas before that. The Clintons have always excelled at declaring the past, even the immediate past, off limits – not for no reason did they adopt as a theme song Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” with its refrain of “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, don’t stop, it’ll soon be here…yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”

Hillary Clinton’s best hope of reconciling with those who fail to understand or accept the basis of her Iraq War vote is to bank on yesterday staying gone.

Follow Dan McLaughlin on Twitter.