In October 2000, Hillary Clinton was entering the home stretch of one of the most unusual Senate campaigns in American history. Although her husband still occupied the Oval Office, she had decamped to a Dutch Colonial in Westchester County to run for the seat of retiring New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To compensate for the fact that she had never actually lived in the state she intended to represent, she immersed herself in Empire State minutiae. Off the top of her head, she would describe in detail the virtues of the Northeast dairy compact and the rate of upstate job growth. The aggressiveness of her New York provincialism tended to obscure the rare occasions on which Clinton would actually unfurl a broader worldview.
One such occasion took place on October 10, a few weeks before the election, when Clinton spoke before a group of investment bankers, magazine editors, and the sundry wonks who populate the Council on Foreign Relations. Although her address received little attention at the time, it outlined a clear vision of American power, one perhaps better-suited to a candidate for president than for the Senate. Many of the details were anodyne--she implored the United States to lead alliances against global problems like aids, poverty, and repression--but, when she came to the use of U.S. military force, her speech took a bracing turn:
There is a refrain ... that we should intervene with force only when we face splendid little wars that we surely can win, preferably by overwhelming force in a relatively short period of time. To those who believe we should become involved only if it is easy to do, I think we have to say that America has never and should not ever shy away from the hard task if it is the right one.
These words, unthinkable for any Democrat to utter today, are revealing of the mindset that led her to support George W. Bush’s confrontation with Iraq, a policy choice that has steadily corroded her presidential ambitions. And, even on that day nearly a year before September 11, her words struck one listener as alarming. During a question-and-answer session that followed, an audience member who identified himself as a banking executive rose to challenge her. “I seem to hear that we should pay any price, bear any burden, to spread our way of life abroad,” he said. “I wonder if you think that every foreign country-- the majority of countries--would actually welcome this new assertiveness, including the one billion Muslims that are out there? And whether or not there isn’t some grave risk to the United States in this--what I would say, not new internationalism, but new imperialism.”
This was perhaps an overreaction to Clinton’s point, and she challenged it as “an extreme statement I do not subscribe to.” Through the lens of recent American foreign policy, however, her inquisitor’s words do have an eerily prescient ring. However accidentally, he had foreshadowed the events that would follow Clinton’s infamous 2002 vote granting President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.
Hillary Clinton’s entire political identity has become defined by that vote and her subsequent refusal to apologize for it. To most observers, her positioning on Iraq is simply the latest example in a long career of venal political calculation. In a zeitgeist-capturing “Saturday Night Live” sketch earlier this year, an actor playing Clinton appeared on a mock “Hardball” segment. “I think most Democrats know me,” the faux Hillary cloyingly explained. “They understand that my support for the war was always insincere.”
But was it? The truth about how Clinton came to support Bush’s war (albeit with reservations), and how she has thought about it since, has always been shrouded in mystery. People assume that Clinton is playing politics, that she voted for the war to look tough or because Bush was popular and that she won’t apologize now for fear of looking like a flip-flopper. Political observers scour her daily statements--her head-nodding, even, in one recent New York Times article--for clues to her thinking. Or they speculate about what she might do in the future. But the key to understanding Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy lies in the past. And, as one probes her inner circle and reconstructs her record, an alternative reading emerges: What if the hawkish Hillary of 2002 wasn’t just motivated by political opportunism? What if she really believed in the war?
It’s hard to get a handle on Clinton’s foreign policy. That’s partly because it’s hard even to get a handle on the identity of her foreign policy advisers. “Look, I don’t fucking know!” barks one former Clintonite when queried about whom Clinton relies on. “No one knows!” The topic breeds deep paranoia, as Hillary’s campaign has been known to rebuke those who speak publicly without explicit license. The result is a confounding omerta code: Whereas other politicians eagerly expound on their worldviews and policy deliberations, asking Democrats about Hillary’s foreign policy consultations sometimes feels like inquiring after Whitey Bulger in Irish South Boston. “Please don’t take this conversation as confirming anything,” pleaded one person I contacted, who would only identify himself as being in the “very distant, outermost, orbital region” of the campaign. “I don’t know how they want us to handle it.” Such nervousness is a testament to the continued belief, despite the rise of Barack Obama, that Hillary will probably be the Democratic nominee--and that, if she wins, she’ll have an administration full of jobs to fill. “This is one of those subjects where people are disinclined to say anything,” explains Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. “People are very cautious when jobs are at stake.”
As a result, it’s not easy divining how Clinton thinks about national security in general, much less what factors led to her support for the Iraq war resolution. Her aides allowed me only a fleeting hallway encounter with Clinton herself. So I set out to unravel the mystery by calling dozens of former Clinton officials and Democratic aides. I also dug into her past, from her college career through eight years in the White House and six in the Senate. Sifting through Hillary’s life, a portrait begins to emerge of a woman who has always been more comfortable with the military than many of her liberal boomer peers. I found that Clinton had aggressively pushed her husband to use force when he was president; that one of her most influential new advisers was a former senior aide to hawkish Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia; and that, although she opposed President Bush’s Iraq “surge,” she has consulted regularly with one of its prime architects. I even found that, in her late twenties, Hillary Rodham Clinton briefly attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marines.
That last fact--reported in 1994 but largely forgotten since--underlines the degree to which, unlike many of her peers, Clinton has never allowed Vietnam to define her vision of foreign policy. It’s true that the war helped pull her from her roots as a Goldwater Girl and a president of Wellesley College’s Young Republicans and drive her into the Democratic Party. During her junior year at Wellesley, she even knocked on doors for Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign. But Vietnam apparently didn’t imbue Hillary with a loathing for the military. In 1975, just months after the last U.S. troops returned home, Hillary was living in Arkansas with Bill, who had mounted a failed bid for Congress the previous year. The young couple, who would marry later that year, were both teaching law at the University of Arkansas, when Hillary, for reasons never made entirely clear, decided to enlist in the Marines. When she walked into a recruiting office in Little Rock and inquired about joining, the recruiter on duty was unenthusiastic about the 27-year-old law professor in thick, goggle glasses. “You’re too old, you can’t see, and you’re a woman,” Clinton recalled him saying. “Maybe the dogs”--Marine slang for the Army--”would take you.” Deflated, Clinton said she decided to “look for another way to serve my country. “
From there, the trail seems to go cold. Hillary’s geopolitical opportunities were limited in Arkansas, where she focused on her law career and advocacy on such domestic issues as children’s rights. And, when she moved with Bill into the White House in 1993, in contrast to her public stewardship of health care, she had no formal foreign policy role. She was rarely, if ever, present at her husband’s official national security meetings, and when she traveled abroad it was typically to promote relatively uncontroversial issues like women’s rights and religious tolerance. “My staff used to tease me, suggesting that the State Department had a directive: If the place was too small, too dangerous or too poor--send Hillary,” she writes in her memoir, Living History.
Behind the scenes, however, Hillary was an important figure in her husband’s overseas agenda. “Much more than is usually the case with a first lady, she was interested in and knowledgeable about foreign policy,” says Strobe Talbott, a former State Department official and longtime friend of the Clintons. In informal settings, “she was very much a part of the conversation.”
That’s no surprise, given how close Hillary was to Bill’s top foreign policy mandarins. She had bonded with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger years before, while working for the presidential campaigns of George McGovern and Gary Hart, and remained close to Berger and his wife, Susan, ever since. As first lady, she talked regularly with Sandy, who she has said took an active interest in her overseas trips. More recently, in 2001, Susan, a Washington realtor, helped Hillary choose her $2.85 million brick Georgian house and even found her a posh interior decorator.
Hillary was tighter still with Madeleine Albright. Both had attended Wellesley (albeit a decade apart), and the pair famously hit it offon a 1996 trip to Eastern Europe when Albright was still ambassador to the United Nations. News reports painted a portrait of gal pals on a European holiday--window- shopping in Prague, sharing dumplings in a cafe, laughing hysterically as the wind turned their umbrellas inside-out. Their personal bond reportedly led Hillary to insist that Bill choose Albright for secretary of state in 1997. It also gave Hillary an informal line to America’s top diplomat. The women met regularly, often with their top aides, for frank conversations about policy and politics in Albright’s State Department dining room. In her memoir, Madam Secretary, Albright describes the relationship as an “unprecedented partnership. “ “I was once asked whether it was appropriate for the two of us to work together so closely,” Albright writes. “I agreed that it was a departure from tradition,” but she saw no problem with the first lady having a hand on the ship of state.
Perhaps most importantly, Hillary clearly helped to shape some of her husband’s key foreign policy decisions. In March 1999, for instance, as Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian forces conducted a rising campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians, her husband considered a series of airstrikes to stop the killing. His generals were nearly unanimous in opposition: Bombing wouldn’t work, they said, and, in any case, military engagement wasn’t worth the risk of American casualties. Russian opposition also guaranteed a lack of U.N. sanction for the mission; any military action would have to be a NATO operation of debatable international legitimacy. Hillary didn’t care. As she later explained to Talk magazine, while on a trip in North Africa she phoned her husband in Washington and pleaded with him to unleash the military. “I urged him to bomb,” she said. “You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?”
Bill Clinton, of course, wound up agreeing with his wife. The subsequent 78-day bombing campaign was an astonishing success. The United States suffered zero casualties, and the Serbs capitulated, beginning the process of Milosevic’s downfall. It was the third time Hillary had spoken up in favor of intervention. The first had beenin 1994 in Haiti, according to one former Clintonite. The other had been the 1995 campaign of airstrikes to bring an end to the Bosnian conflict. Her memoir recounts hearing a speech by Elie Wiesel in April 1993 in which he invoked the Holocaust as he pleaded with the president to take action in the former Yugoslavia. “Sitting in the gray drizzle,” Hillary writes, “I agreed with Elie’s words, because I was convinced that the only way to stop the genocide in Bosnia was through selective air strikes against Serbian targets.” This was more than two years before her husband finally brought himself to commence the bombing.
By the end of their reign, the Clintonites seemed to have demonstrated that the United States could flex its muscles with ease and precision--even without U.N. approval--and be loved for it. U.S. bombs had restored peace and stability to central Europe, and American values were on the march. Hillary’s memoir recounts her 1996 meeting with an American peacekeeping soldier in Bosnia:”[W]herever we go, the kids wave at us and smile,” he told her. “To me, that’s reason enough to be here.” Not only was it righteous, it held a certain glamour as well. As Hillary recounts in a typical passage, “Sheryl Crow, Sinbad and Chelsea and I flew in Black Hawk helicopters to visit soldiers in forward positions. ... Chelsea had been a big hit with the soldiers and their families throughout the trip, shaking hands and signing autographs with her usual warmth and grace.” All this filled her with a vivid optimism. On a flight back from the region, she recalls, “I remember thinking what a perfect day it was for flying and what a perfect moment to be alive.”
Little wonder that, by 1999, Hillary was proclaiming in speeches, “I am very pleased that this president and administration have made democracy one of the centerpieces of our foreign policy.” Or that, during her Senate campaign a year later, she would argue that America’s military involvements should not be limited to “splendid little wars.”
In the fall of 2002, Bush officials were having their own troubles divining what Hillary Clinton thought about Iraq. Although she wasa regular attendee at Capitol Hill briefings conducted by senior administration officials like Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz, she listened far more than she spoke, recalls one former Bush official. (She was more open with then-deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, an old friend from Yale Law School, pulling him aside for private chats.) But in general, says the former Bush official, Clinton seemed more comfortable with confronting Iraq than some other Democrats. “I was kind of pleasantly surprised by her attitude,” he says. “Not that she was jumping up and down waving flags and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go after these guys.’ But you take a John Kerry--he would sit back with his arms folded and a skeptical look.”
At one point that fall, Clinton visited the White House, along with several other senators, to hear National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice make her case for the Iraq resolution. Once again, Hillary kept her views largely to herself, leading Rice to call her personally afterward. Did the senator have any questions she might answer, Rice asked? Clinton asked Rice for assurance that Bush really intended to push diplomacy to the limit, that the resolution was not a de facto vote for war. On the contrary, Rice said, it was the best hope for peace: Only the clear threat of force could compel Saddam to accept the intrusive weapons inspections that might avert war.
Clinton says now that she took Rice at her word. She expected the administration to make a good-faith effort at diplomacy and to give arms inspectors ample time to do their work. According to her, it did neither. Her critics deride that as a naive view, of course. A few weeks before, even her confidante Sandy Berger had noted that “the smell of gunpowder” was already in the Washington air. But a vote based on the notion that diplomacy required the threat of force behind it was entirely consistent with the worldview her husband’s administration had developed. “I think there is a connection to her vote,” says James P. Rubin, a former Clinton assistant secretary of state, “which is recognizing that the right combination of force and diplomacy can achieve America’s objectives. Sometimes to get things done--like getting inspectors into Iraq--you do have to be prepared to threaten force. But you have to get the combination right. And, in Iraq, Bush got the combination wrong. To get it right means not dispensing with either force or diplomacy.”
But, by 2002, some Clintonites seemed resigned to the inevitability of force as a solution. Iraq had been a persistent fly in the ointment during the latter years of the Clinton administration. Few things terrified the Clintonites more than the chemical and biological arsenal they were convinced Saddam possessed. Their phobia was illustrated in 1997, when Defense Secretary William Cohen appeared on television holding up a five-pound sack of sugar to illustrate how a small payload of Saddam’s anthrax could kill half of Washington. Late in his presidency, Bill Clinton told one interviewer that the thought of a crop-duster spraying biological agents over the National Mall literally “keeps me awake at night.” Thoughts like these led to an ever-more aggressive posture toward Saddam. In November 1998, the president signed the Iraq Liberation Act, making Saddam’s ouster a stated goal of U.S. policy for the first time; a few months later, Albright toured the Middle East explaining to Arab governments that the United States was serious about “regime change.” When Saddam kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors that year, Clinton ordered Operation Desert Fox, a four-day campaign of bombing and cruise-missile strikes. “So long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world,” he explained at the time. “The credible threat to use force, and, when necessary, the actual use of force, is the surest way to contain Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction program, curtail his aggression, and prevent another gulf war.”
Whatever role Hillary played in her husband’s Iraq policy remains a mystery. But it’s clear that the Clintonites left office deeply frustrated at the unsolved problem of Iraq and perhaps believing that some final reckoning was inevitable. “President Clinton recognized, as did I,” Albright writes in her memoir, “that the mixture of sanctions, containment, Iraqi defiance, and our own uncertainty about Saddam’s weapons couldn’t go on indefinitely.”
Bush’s approach was clearly blunter than what Clintonite foreign policy would have dictated. But, even as the “smell of gunpowder” turned into a stench, the foreign policy experts to whom Hillary was closest remained supportive of war with Iraq. “Most of the top [Clinton] national security team had sympathy for what Bush decided, in the broadest terms,” says a Democratic foreign policy analyst.
The most hawkish among them was former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, with whom Clinton conferred that fall. “If all else fails, collective action against Saddam is, in my view, justified by the situation and the record of the last decade,” Holbrooke told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2002. Holbrooke’s standard for “collective” seemed to include only the British and perhaps a handful of other allies. And Holbrooke made clear that a war to topple Saddam was unlikely to be easy and that U.S. forces might have to spend years in a postwar Iraq. Nor was Holbrooke alone. Varying degrees of support for the Bush resolution came from the likes of Rubin, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Steinberg. And, though she raised red flags about the war’s risks, Hillary’s close friend Albright ultimately concluded that Bush “should have this authority.” This was hardly shocking: Albright’s relatives had fled both Hitler and Stalin, instilling in her a belief that dictators must be challenged. “My mindset is Munich,” she once said. “Most of my generation’s is Vietnam.” It may have been such thinking that once led Albright to query a stunned Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” (In his memoir, Powell recalls,”I thought I would have an aneurysm.”)
Hillary also conferred with Kenneth Pollack, the former Clinton national security aide whose book, The Threatening Storm, helped convince many Democrats that Saddam could not be peacefully contained indefinitely. (Although, when Clinton bumped into Pollack at Berger’s October 2005 birthday party at the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood, she needled him for his mistaken beliefs about Saddam. “Ken, where are those WMDs you were telling me about?” she said.)
To be sure, policy and politics have always been inexorably intertwined in Clintonland, and, while some close to Hillary made a principled case for supporting the war, others clearly billed it as a political winner. Among them was surely her pollster, Mark Penn, who has been a member of the Clinton inner circle since 1995. The disheveled, Harvard-educated Penn has long been obsessed with the political center. After September 11, he fixated on foreign policy, repeatedly warning Democrats that they needed to show voters that, as he put it in one essay, they are “capable of managing national security issues.” For Penn, supporting the Iraq war was a fine opportunity to demonstrate this. In the 2004 Democratic primaries, he attached himself to a candidate who believed likewise, joining the ill-fated campaign of Joe Lieberman. According to one former Lieberman adviser, even as Iraq slid toward chaos Penn believed war supporters would be vindicated: “Penn was telling Lieberman he would be right about the war.” It hardly seems a stretch to assume he told Hillary Clinton the same thing.
Of course, no Clintonite likely held more sway with Hillary than Bill himself, whose war position has never attracted the same scrutiny. Indeed, befitting the man who said of the 1991 gulf war debate that he “agreed with the arguments of the minority,” but “would have voted with the majority,” Bill’s views on the second Iraq war remain murky. When talk of a confrontation with Iraq first began brewing in 2002, he seemed wary about a possible distraction from the pursuit of Al Qaeda. “I don’t have any use for Saddam Hussein,” he said in a speech that June. “But I do think you have to ask yourself in what order do we have to do this.” But, as the war drums grew louder, he grew increasingly supportive. While he stressed the importance of diplomacy and arms inspections, he seemed to value them more as a way to legitimate an invasion than to avoid one. On October 27, for instance, Clinton said in another speech that “I do think it would be better if we can go through the U.N. and try the inspections, even though if past is prologue, they’ll fail.” Though he regularly warned against acting without broad support, this, too, seemed less a critique of Bush administration aggressiveness than of U.N. timidity. In a mid-February speech, he told a Texas audience that Bush “deserves a lot of credit for saying we can’t just ignore [Iraq] forever; it’s time to deal with this again,” before going on to argue that the credibility of the United Nations was at stake and urging recalcitrant European countries to show that they were serious about Iraq.
More strikingly, Clinton even seemed to embrace the neocon notion that, by toppling Saddam, the United States might reshape the Middle East. “[I]t’s going to take years to rebuild Iraq,” he said.”If we do this, we want it to be a secular democracy. We want it tobe a shared model for other Middle Eastern countries. We want to do what a lot of people in the administration honestly want, which is to have it shake the foundations of autocracy in the Middle East and promote more freedom and decency. You’ve got to spend money and work hard and send people there to work over a long period of time.” These could have been the words of Paul Wolfowitz. But, to Bill Clinton, this wasn’t a blinkered fantasy--it was a legitimate and realistic U.S. foreign policy objective.
Still rotating in Hillary’s orbit are many of the Clintonites who advised her prior to the war. “There’s no way when you look at who’s around her that you can’t see it as a continuum” from her husband’s administration, says representative and former Clinton White House aide Rahm Emanuel. But, when I pressed Hillary’s advisers on the subject of whom she consults on foreign policy,they were eager to portray her--in convenient contrast to, say, Barack Obama and John Edwards--as an experienced foreign policy hand who doesn’t need anyone telling her what to think. “This is not like Bush and the Vulcans,” explains one, referring to the (supposed) policy titans who schooled the geopolitically clueless Texas governor. By contrast, Clinton advisers note, as first lady she visited 82 nations--each trip accompanied by a detailed briefing. “You’d be hard-pressed to say that there’s anyone in this race with that experience,” says one. The flattering image presented by Hillary’s circle is of a policy mastermind who mainly calls in people with specific expertise when she needs to fill small gaps in her knowledge on particular regions or threats. (I learned the names of some of these experts--uncontroversial figures with high media profiles--but the paranoia in Clintonland runs so deep that I was not given permission to cite them.)
Hillary Clinton still talks regularly with her husband’s senior foreign policy team, whose generally hawkish slant may help to explain why Hillary has been far slower than her Democratic rivals to shift left on the war. (It’s telling that the three well-known former Clinton foreign policy officials who have signed up with Obama’s campaign--former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, State Department African affairs expert Susan Rice, and Greg Craig, a lawyer and one time adviser to Albright--are more dovish than many of their old colleagues.) Hillary’s campaign still lacks a formally structured foreign policy team, perhaps in part because her lasting personal friendships provide much of the advice she needs. A month after Hillary’s election to the Senate in 2000, for instance, Holbrooke hosted a gala dinner for her at his private residence in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Towers, featuring attendees like Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford. When Hillary traveled to Munich in 2005 for a speech about the United Nations, Holbrooke was there, taking notes in the front row. He’s also inside enough to have recently solicited recommendations for a new full-time foreign policy aide to join Clinton’s campaign. “He’s obviously gunning for secretary of state,” a Democratic foreign policy expert told me. “He’s putting all his eggs in this basket.”
Hillary is also still close to her former cafe-hopping buddy Albright, whom she recently named to a “rapid reaction” team of women who will defend her against attacks in the press. And she is said to confer constantly with Berger, her friend of more than 30 years, who, despite his opposition to the Iraq war, still defends the utility of force. In a 2004 Foreign Affairs essay calling for a return to internationalism, he nonetheless noted that “[a] Democratic administration will need to reaffirm the United States’ willingness to use military power--alone if necessary--in defense of its vital interests.” (That said, some Democrats suggest that Berger’s involvement in the campaign will be limited--or at least concealed--thanks to his ham-fisted attempt to smuggle documents from the National Archives in 2003.)
Newer additions to Hillary’s fold also suggest that her hawkish profile is about more than just polls. One is her Senate foreign policy staffer Andrew Shapiro. The 39-year-old Shapiro is affable but charged with nervous energy. (Sitting in the audience at a recent Clinton speech on the military, he rocked steadily back and forth like Rain Man at Wapner time.) A Gore-Lieberman campaign aide and Justice Department lawyer, Shapiro was also briefly a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a center- right think tank. Shapiro is “a mainstream foreign Democratic policy establishment moderate,” says a congressional foreign policy aide. “He’s hawkish on defense issues and Israel.” It is Shapiro, Hillaryites say, who is in the room for most of her important foreign policy decisions.
Hillary has also recruited a new and relatively unknown adviser: longtime defense establishment insider Jeffrey Smith. “When she went on Armed Services, she telephoned me and asked if I would come up and give her a sense of the issues she’d encounter,” says Smith, who served as general counsel to the CIA in the mid-’90s and is now a partner at the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter. Though Smith has civil libertarian views on intelligence (he strongly opposes the Guantanamo Bay detainee program), he is a West Point graduate with roots in military culture who spent several years working for Nunn on the Senate Armed Services Committee. During the 2004 campaign, Smith said he had found John Kerry’s 1971 charges of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam offensive. Smith has been a harsh critic of the Iraq war from the start, but, like Hillary, he has argued that the United States can’t summarily withdraw. “[N]o one should question how difficult--or how important--it is to achieve our mission,” he wrote in a 2003 op-ed.
Smith told me he’s been surprised at the kinship Hillary finds with military and ex-military men. A case in point is her camaraderie with retired General Jack Keane, a gruff former vice army chief of staff and co-architect of Bush’s Iraq “surge” plan. Keane, a New Yorker, contacted his new senator after her 2001 election and offered to keep her up to speed on the state’s Fort Drum Army base and military issues generally. In 2003, Keane escorted Clinton on a visit to West Point to address students there. (A private chat about Iraq on the flight home prompted Clinton to take her first trip there two months later.) When Clinton joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2002, Shapiro says, Keane was among the first people she contacted. Although Clinton opposed Keane’s surge plan, her aides say she still thinks enough of his opinion that she has debated it with him. It’s hard to imagine many other leading Democrats would have done the same.
Clinton’s aides wouldn’t grant me an extended interview with her, but I was afforded a brief, on-the-fly encounter. On a recent March morning, I merged into Clinton’s bubble as she left a press conference on children’s health care in the Russell Senate Office Building. Even on Capitol Hill, Clinton has massive star power, and it took her five minutes to work her way out of the room in her methodical style, head slowly turning this way and that like a giant radar dish as her pale blue eyes locked onto each new supplicant. Finally, Clinton greeted me warmly as we stepped onto an elevator closed to the rabble by her Secret Service detail.
I had time for two questions. First, I asked her about the influence her husband’s foreign policy experience had on her Iraq vote: whether his successful use of force, even without U.N. approval, had shaped her decision. “It certainly did influence my thinking,”she told me in her matter-of-fact tone. “What many of us thought was, the use of diplomacy backed up by the threat of force--that is a credible position for America to take in the world.” But, she added, “there were those in the Congress who thought that the United States should never even threaten force--or certainly take force--in the absence of U.N. Security Council approval. Well, I had seen during the Clinton administration that sometimes, that’s not even possible. Sometimes, it’s not even possible for the president to get congressional approval to pursue vital national security interests.” This does not sound like someone who, in her heart, had at the time thought George Bush’s confrontation was a terrible mistake.
Then we were on the street. Clinton’s black sedan was waiting with an open door. Though she was starting to look impatient, I wedged in my second question: What should people make of the fact that she had briefly tried to enlist in the military? At this her eyes narrowed and she threw me a glare of mistrust. “I have very deep and quite broad relationships with people in the military,” she said. As for the meaning of the recruiting visit, “I can’t tell you,” she said with a dismissive wave. “You go look at that.” And at that, the door shut, and she was gone, a faint silhouette behind tinted windows.
In her October 2002 speech explaining her vote for President Bush’s war resolution, Hillary was clearly conflicted. She listed several reasons why war might be necessary, including the Iraqi chemical and biological arsenal--which she called “undisputed”--and her purported special perspective, as a New Yorker after September 11, on the “risks of action versus inaction.” She also offered several counterarguments, including her fear that Bush might make a dangerous precedent of “preemption.”
But, in concluding that she would support Bush, Clinton offered another rationale of a very different sort. She argued that she was inherently predisposed to grant the benefit of the doubt to a president asking Congress for support in matters of war. In the’90s, Clinton had watched congressional Republicans undermine her husband’s foreign policy for political gain. They mocked his interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo--Tom DeLay called it “Clinton’s war”--and they cried “wag the dog” when he launched a cruise-missile attack on Iraq in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal.”[P]erhaps,” Hillary mused in her floor speech, “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.”
In short, Clinton was arguing that Congress should have an innate deference to presidential authority in matters of diplomacy and war. As she explained to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in December 2003, “I’m a strong believer in executive authority. I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority.” To this day, when Clinton refuses to apologize for her war vote, she explains that she doesn’t regret deferring to Bush’s authority, but rather “the way he used that authority.”
Thanks to the excesses of the Bush administration, the phrase “executive authority” has a dirty ring to it these days, and Hillary rarely talks much about it in public. But her advisers say it remains a guiding principle of her thinking. It also explains why Hillary, despite the vitriol of Cindy Sheehan and harassment by antiwar protesters, has been so much slower than Democratic primary rivals like John Edwards to call for a swift U.S. withdrawal.
Of course, there is another prominent Democrat, one beloved by the left, who has also shared Hillary’s moderation on the question of exiting Iraq: Al Gore. Though he opposed the war full-throatedly, the former vice president has yet to endorse a quick withdrawal, saying that to do so would be to consign Iraq to complete anarchy. Clinton advisers note that the key thing Hillary and Gore have in common is eight years together at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “On his press tour, Gore sounded like Hillary,” says one Clinton adviser.” And it’s probably because those two understand the presidency better than anyone.” Or, as Les Gelb puts it, “She thinks more like a president than a candidate.”
Ultimately, perhaps the strangest thing about Hillary Clinton’s war vote is that she actually seems to have related to George W. Bush’s predicament. She remembered the feeling of being in the White House, looking at a dangerous and unstable world, and imagining that the United States had the power to make it safer and more humane. She knew the feeling of having a powerful military on call. She not only believed that Saddam had WMD, but also that, by deposing him, the United States could promote freedom and democracy.
Those beliefs made Clinton receptive to Bush’s arguments for war, even if it was almost certainly not one she would have initiated. But the final straw for her decision may have had less to do with a vision of U.S. power than with a vision of herself. She had seen her husband in Bush’s shoes, confronting a Congress that didn’t trust his foreign policy leadership. And she knew that, someday, she might find herself in those same shoes as well. In that sense, for Hillary Clinton, supporting the Iraq war may have been as much about her future as it was about her past.