This time around, count Hillary Clinton out of any U.S. military action in Iraq.
She would "absolutely not" send ground troops to stabilize the dissolving country, she says. The 2016 Democratic presidential frontrunner would even be cautious about airstrikes. "I would not support any action unless there was a very clear understanding of what [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would or wouldn't do, who was running the army, and what third parties were going to be involved," Clinton said.
Packed into those statements are some qualifications and caveats. Clintons, after all, always hedge their bets. It is nevertheless noteworthy that one of the country's foremost liberal hawks — derided in left-wing web forums as "part of the neocon establishment" — has come out against intervention more convincingly than almost any major Republican, with one significant exception.
As secretary of state, Clinton pushed for a residual force to remain in Iraq. She still says the failure to come up with a status of forces agreement that would have kept troops there past 2011 was a "mistake by the Iraqi government." She supported the Obama administration's aborted plan for airstrikes against Syria, too.
Kosovo, Libya, the Afghan troop surge — Clinton was for them all. So what's behind her current restraint? Her vote authorizing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Had she voted differently, she almost certainly would have been elected president in 2008. Instead she lost the Democratic nomination to a man who spoke out against "dumb wars."
Why let history repeat itself? Many liberals wish to avoid any involvement in Iraq beyond the limited steps — enhancing embassy security and dispatching military advisers — the president has already taken. Being too hawkish on Iraq a second time might create just the space a progressive challenger needs to gain traction against Clinton in the primaries.
If only Republicans would learn from the past as Clinton has.
The Iraq War cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006 and helped pave the way for the Democratic supermajorities that would eventually enact ObamaCare. John McCain's steadfast support for the war, complete with declarations of victory and remarks about a 100-year presence in Iraq, prevented him from re-creating the enthusiasm among independents that had surrounded his candidacy in 2000 — and that might have powered him into the White House in 2008.
And of course, nothing did more to contribute to the sense that George W. Bush's presidency was a disaster than the Iraq War, not even Katrina or the financial crisis.
Yet there was McCain ranting earlier this month on the Senate floor, "We have to act. We have to act. We must act!" The senior senator from Arizona has appeared to endorse military action in about a dozen countries in recent years, but who's counting?
Bush's vice president has also been ubiquitous, chastising Obama for withdrawing from Iraq. Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz, herself a former Bush administration official, have launched the hawkish Alliance for a Stronger America. The two wrote an op-ed slamming the "collapsing Obama doctrine" and citing Ronald Reagan's admonition against "simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries."
Yes, Cheney and McCain are particularly invested in the Iraq War. If push came to shove, it isn't clear that many other Republicans would endorse resuming a major military presence in Iraq. A few GOP congressmen might even be for Barbara Lee's bill barring the introduction of troops into the country. But where are the Republicans drawing a clear line against military intervention in Iraq? Why aren't they staking out a position — as Clinton has — that is not only popular among war-weary voters, but also the right course of (in)action?
Perhaps because the idea that everything was more or less fine in Iraq until President Obama pulled out the last troops remains Republican conventional wisdom. Part of this is simply an anti-Obama tic, but it also reflects the failure of many Republicans to come to grips with what really went wrong with foreign policy during the Bush years.
A former Vietnam War protester, Hillary Clinton can remember when the Democrats lost 49 states in presidential elections partly because the party was perceived as being too weak on foreign policy. She and her husband were part of the attempt to steer Democrats away from their excessively dovish, McGovernite image.
Having lost the Democratic presidential nomination for erring too far in the other direction, Clinton also appreciates that hawkish liberal politicians are today men — and women — without a country. Once again she is trying to adapt, however haltingly, to the changing political dynamics.
Joe Scarborough has mused that Clinton might be "more of a saber-rattler, more of a neocon, than probably the Republican nominee." Hillary and some Republicans seem to be trying to ensure that doesn't happen.
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