by Ximena Ortiz
While Clinton has broad experience to highlight on the campaign trail, she appeared to have been at a considerable disadvantage on the substance of some of her positions, vis-à-vis her main rival Senator Barack Obama, who proved in a 2002 speech his foresight of the troubles to come in Iraq. Not only did Clinton cast in 2002 her widely discussed vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq, she also in December 2003 sharply criticized President Bush for possibly having an exit strategy in Iraq—a position Clinton is now campaigning on—and called for more troops to be sent to the theater. And when she was asked directly about the politically risky position that then-Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean had taken in opposition to the Iraq War, Clinton maintained neutrality.
Clinton has also been notably successful in addressing the potentially damaging revelations about the context in which former President Bill Clinton praised Kazakhstan’s autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 2005. Shortly before the primary’s critical Super Tuesday, the New York Times revealed in a front-page article that the former president had made the statements and trip to Kazakhstan alongside a key donor to his foundation, and that the donor later received a lucrative contract to mine uranium in that country.
According to exit polls, Clinton did well with those voters that said they valued experience and presumably favored her exposure to Washington’s political process—a quality that Obama’s supporters appeared to take exception to. The elderly favored Clinton as did those of that were generally less affluent and those that had less education. Obama claimed those voters that said they wanted to see change and were especially concerned about the war in Iraq.
Those polls indicate that Clinton seemed to understand that large numbers of voters wanted only a modicum of change and would support an experienced Washington “insider” able to work with so-called special interests in negotiating deals on the issues that mattered to them, such as health care, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and other matters. Indeed, these were some of the qualities that the New York Times cited in its editorial endorsing Clinton.
But apart from the general preferences and demographics of voters exhibited in exit polls, it is difficult to determine who Clinton’s supporters are, why they voted for her and what her mandate is. Do the primary voters that supported Clinton favor ending America’s military adventures in the Middle East, or do they want Washington to more aggressively confront Iran, possibly militarily? Do they support a multilateral approach to addressing some of the key foreign-policy issues of today, or do they believe America should act unilaterally? Given the diversity of Clinton’s positions, her supporters could easily believe in any of these juxtaposing positions.
According to pollsters, Clinton struggles with voters that consider themselves independents. But according to some anecdotal exit interviews with voters, Obama’s call for change may have been a negative with other constituencies. In an article about the broad (if qualified) support that Jewish voters are giving Hillary Clinton in New York City and Long Island, Jewish Week reported that one voter said: “I never thought I would say so, but I voted for Hillary. . . . But more importantly, I voted against Obama. He scares me.”
And though Clinton is now making her plan to withdraw troops a cornerstone of her campaign, one Brooklyn voter told the newspaper: “I feel Obama doesn’t have the experience. . . . If he pulls the troops out of Iraq there’ll be chaos, Iran will get the upper hand and that’s no good for Israel, that’s for sure. Israel’s a big concern, it has to be.” If there is confusion about what Clinton’s current positions are, it may be due to the seeming disparity of some her positions.
Clinton’s much-discussed support for the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, which designates the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization, has prompted some critics, including Obama, to charge the senator with potentially providing Bush with the political pretext to take America to war with Iran. Obama was absent from the vote and later said he would have voted against it. But some of Clinton’s own statements on Iran are perhaps more noteworthy.
Given her campaign call to end the war in Iraq and “repair all the relationships that have been damaged by President Bush, on [this] very continent [and] across the globe” (January 28, 2008, Hartford, Connecticut), some of Clinton’s backers may expect that she would preside over a less-bellicose foreign policy. But on Iran those expectations may be unwarranted. During a speech in Princeton University on January, 19, 2006, Clinton accused the Bush Administration of not being forceful, or unilateral, enough on Iran:
I believe that we lost critical time in dealing with Iran because the White House chose to downplay the threats and to outsource the negotiations. I don't believe you face threats like Iran or North Korea by outsourcing it to others and standing on the sidelines. But let's be clear about the threat we face now: A nuclear Iran is a danger to Israel, to its neighbors and beyond. The regime's pro-terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric only underscores the urgency of the threat it poses. U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal. We cannot and should not—must not—permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. In order to prevent that from occurring, we must have more support vigorously and publicly expressed by China and Russia, and we must move as quickly as feasible for sanctions in the United Nations. And we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran—that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
Clinton’s also appeared to suggest that a draw-down of U.S. troops from Iraq should be completed to potentially confront Iran more aggressively:
Part of the problem that we confront with Iran today is, of course, its involvement in and influence over Iraq. . . . I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end, nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately. If last December's elections lead to a successful Iraqi government, that should allow us to start drawing down our troops during this year while leaving behind a smaller contingent in safe areas with greater intelligence and quick-strike capabilities. This will help us stabilize that new Iraqi government. It will send a message to Iran that they do not have a free hand in Iraq despite their considerable influence and personal and religious connections there. It will also send a message to Israel and our other allies, like Jordan, that we will continue to do what we can to provide the stability necessary to prevent the terrorists from getting any further foothold than they currently have.
Those statements may be surprising to those voters who thought they were supporting a conclusion to America’s military activity in the Middle East by supporting Clinton. Indeed, in some of her more recent speeches—such as the July speech in Des Moines—Clinton has strongly suggested that Iran could be dealt with through negotiation and has not reiterated her position that she would not “take any option off the table.” In that July speech she said: “Unfortunately, for most of the past six years, President Bush has adopted a simple and fundamentally flawed strategy for dealing with these countries: we don't talk to bad people.” She added, “I think you agree with me that we strongly disagree with this approach. Even during the Cold War, we never stopped speaking to the Soviet Union. Even when they had thousands of missiles pointed at us. . . . We know this approach can be as effective now as it was back then.” She added, “When I am president, we will deal with Syria and Iran right from the beginning, we will engage them in open, frank, tough-minded discussions about the status of Iraq. And we will convey our strong, bi-partisan position that Iran cannot be allowed obtain nuclear weapons.”
When MSNBC’s Tim Russert interviewed Hillary Clinton in December 7, 2003, some key Democrats, including the then-ascendant Howard Dean—had taken bold stances in opposition of the Iraq War. As Russert notes, some key Democratic strategists had warned against such a stand:
Let me turn to the domestic situation. Leon Panetta, who was your husband’s chief of staff, had this to say about Howard Dean the other day: ‘There clearly are concerns about Dean’s ability to appeal to the entire country, particularly on national security issues. . . . There is concern about how does [Dean’s antiwar campaign] play out a year from now? How can you compete with President Bush on the national security front? There’s some concern about whether Dean can rise to the occasion on these issues.’ Do you believe that Howard Dean has the experience in foreign policy and national security and the temperament to be president of the United States?
In the interview, Clinton sidestepped the opportunity to defend Dean’s stance, which she could have done even while declining to back a particular nominee. Clinton said, “Well, Tim, I’m not going to comment on any of the nominees, because I have taken a neutral position.” Further, she took a stance that seems broadly reflective of Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, in lambasting the way the Iraq War had been prosecuted, but not the war itself or even the decision to go to war.
Importantly, in that same interview, Clinton took aim at the Bush administration for contemplating what she perceived as a potential exit strategy from Iraq, now a central element of her platform: “It is clear that there is some concern that the process in Iraq for elections is being driven not by the conditions on the ground in Iraq but by the time table for our own elections. That the administration is intent upon some kind of exit strategy, some kind of transition before our elections,” said Clinton.
And in contrast to the Democrats that were calling for a conclusion to the war, Clinton advocated for sending more troops to Iraq. When Russert asked Clinton: “So if the president came forward and said, ‘We need another 50,000 American troops for Iraq,’ you’d look at that favorably?” Clinton responded, “I would look at it very carefully and I would say, ‘You know, let’s get the job done.’”
And later in the interview, Clinton’s statement on Iraq sounded strikingly similar to that used by Bush administration officials. She said: “And I think that, given the globalization of information and communication, we have to be very forthright in saying, you know, ‘Failure is not an option. We are going to stay the course,’ but we’ve got to figure out what the course is.”
Also, on Iraq Clinton has been dropping some of the caveats she placed on her earlier statements regarding the war. Last week in Hartford she said, “I believe we can restore American leadership and moral authority in the world, beginning with ending the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home within sixty days of when I become President.” She did not again reference “leaving behind a smaller contingent in safe areas with greater intelligence and quick-strike capabilities,” as she did in her 2006 Princeton address, without specifying just what size a “smaller contingent” would be. And in “Hillary Clinton’s Plan for to End the War in Iraq as President,” available on Clinton’s official website, she again does not make mention of such a contingent. The last sentence of the plan does reads: “She would devote the resources we need to fight terrorism and will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region.” Clinton does not specify the size such specialized units would be, where they would be based, or whether they will have authority to strike only in Iraq, or beyond.
And though Clinton criticized the Bush administration for failing to act more unilaterally and forcefully on Iran in Princeton in 2006, she has also promised to repair America’s broken relationships and to address the challenges of Iraq, in the wake of a U.S. drawdown of troops, through a multilateral framework. “As it stands now, the United States is shouldering far too great a share of the financial burden for rebuilding Iraq,” said Clinton in her July speech in Des Moines. “As of February 2007, foreign donors had made good on only about 4 billion dollars of the 15 billion in pledges from the Madrid Conference. Some wealthy Gulf nations have come up especially short. Countries around the world also have a stake in Iraq's future—and they should contribute to securing it.” Clinton does not specify, though, how the nations that would be disinvited from negotiations with Iran would be inclined to donate to billions of dollars to Iraq in wake of a military mission they originally objected to
On Kazakhstan and Bill Clinton
On Sunday in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Clinton defended the statements made by her husband during his visit to Kazakhstan, alongside the Canadian financier Frank Giustra, who was later awarded a uranium-mining deal that had been sought by large multinationals with broad experience in the region. Bill Clinton had suggested that Nazarbayev could become head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which promotes human rights and democracy, despite Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the leader for his repressive policies. Giustra subsequently donated $31 million to Bill Clinton’s foundation.
When asked about the trip and her husband’s statements, Clinton said:
Well, let me set the record straight. He went to Kazakhstan to sign an agreement with the government to provide low-cost drugs for HIV/AIDS, a growing problem in central Asia. While he was there, he met with opposition leaders and certainly spoke out about, you know, the hopes that we have to have a good relationship with that country.”She then suggested that the differences of her statements on Nazarbayev proved her independence from her husband and former president:
“I have been on record for many years against the anti-democratic regime, calling for changes, standing against efforts that would bring them into positions of leadership in the global community without their making changes. So I think it is clear that I will stand on my own two feet. I will say what I believe. And I will be a president who pursues policies that I think are in the best interests of our country.”But the clarity of Clinton’s argument became less apparent when Wallace pushed her further, and asked whether a difference in position between her and her husband on Kazakhstan would not cause some confusion. Clinton not only justified the position of her husband by pointing out that Vice President Cheney—who Clinton has criticized repeatedly in the past—had taken a similar one, she also strongly suggested that she did, in fact, agree with her husband’s statements and that they reflected the positions she would take as president as part of her counterterror strategy:
Well, Dick Cheney also went to Kazakhstan and praised the current regime. You know, you sometimes have to use both carrots and sticks to move these regimes to do what they should be doing. But I don't think there's any doubt about where I stand and what I intend to do. Obviously, these are difficult problems that require seasoned leadership. We have a lot of interests in that part of the world with natural resources and trying to make sure there's a bulwark against spreading extremism.
The Kazakhstan issue highlights part of the difficulty in parsing the positions of Senator Clinton from those of her husband. Many commentators are correctly reticent to hold the senator responsible for some of the policies and statements of the former president, and it is perhaps partly due to that restraint that the senator’s response to the Kazakhstan issue has not received greater coverage. Still, Clinton should be held accountable for her own statements regarding the former president, particularly if they are inconsistent.
Regardless of whether Clinton did or did not contradict herself on Kazakhstan and other issues, the senator appears to have neutralized those questions with graceful facility. And while Clinton did not demonstrate any remarkable foresight or political valor on Iraq, she can be forgiven for some evolution of her positions as conditions in that country deteriorated. Still, voters and the media should press her to elaborate on some of her vaguer current positions. And both can legitimately question whether, as president, Clinton would act in the long-range interests of the country or turn a keener eye on the political temperaments of the moment.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.