The Magazine

Hillary's War

The loneliness of the long-distance front-runner.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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"You know, I find myself, as I often do, in the somewhat lonely middle."

--Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the January 27, 2007, New Yorker

New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton remains the most hawkish prospective candidate in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Among the major Democrats who have announced or are about to announce their candidacies, only Sen. Clinton has not clearly repudiated her October 10, 2002, vote authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. And although Clinton opposes Bush's proposed increase of American combat troops deployed in Iraq, and has called for the "phased redeployment" of some troops from Iraq in order to foster a political settlement that might end sectarian killing there, such positions still leave her to the right of the antiwar left and most other Democrats.

Unlike Illinois senator Barack Obama and former vice president Al Gore, Sen. Clinton supported regime change in 2002. Unlike Delaware senator Joseph Biden, Clinton has not voiced support for partitioning Iraq along sectarian lines. Unlike former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, she has neither called for the "immediate" withdrawal of 40,000 troops from Iraq nor said that her initial vote to authorize the conflict was a "mistake." And unlike Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, Clinton rejects setting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal.

Nor are Sen. Clinton's moderately hawkish positions limited to Iraq. At a time when a majority of Democrats say global warming is the most important foreign policy issue facing America, she has said that "the number one problem remains the spread of weapons of mass destruction and those falling into the hands of either rogue nations or borderless terrorists." She has said that an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons would pose a "direct threat" to its neighbors and a "significant threat" to the United States--and while proposing direct talks with Iran "should the right opportunity present itself," she also says that "we have to keep all options on the table" because "U.S. policy must be unequivocal: Iran must not build or acquire nuclear weapons." Meanwhile, Sen. Clinton has called for more U.S. troops to be deployed to Afghanistan and for the Army to be expanded--a position that, until recently, put her to the right of the Bush administration.

It was Bush's decision to change strategy and commit more U.S. resources to the war that altered Washington's politics and Sen. Clinton's presidential calculations. Democrats had hoped to begin 2007 focused on domestic policy and their "100 Hour Agenda." But press accounts containing hints that the president had rejected the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and was planning to announce a new counterinsurgency strategy involving tens of thousands of additional troops forced the Democrats' hand. Their response came on January 5, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to President Bush rejecting more troops and stating that it was "time to bring the war to a close."

In December, Reid (and Clinton) had kept open the possibility that he (and she) would support a force "surge" if it was accompanied by a shift in strategy. Now they have closed that door. At week's end the only declared Democratic advocate of Bush's new strategy is Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman--and Lieberman, though he caucuses with the Democrats, is technically an "Independent Democrat." Leaders in both houses plan to hold votes this week on nonbinding resolutions condemning the new Bush policy. Both these resolutions are expected to pass easily.

And Sen. Clinton is expected to join her colleagues in voting for such a resolution. If she does, it will not only illustrate the degree to which congressional and public opinion on Iraq has shifted leftward; it will also be the first in what will most likely become, over the next two years, a series of votes in which Congress battles with the president to influence the course of the war in Iraq. For example, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has introduced legislation requiring congressional approval for any increase in troop levels. Democratic congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania plans to introduce similar legislation in the House. And there will be other attempts to limit and constrain the president's freedom of action. It is likely that these votes, combined with the changing situation on the ground in Iraq and in the broader Middle East, will be important in the 2008 presidential primaries.