The Good Soldier Clinton

Column: Hillary doubles down on the president’s losing Iraq strategy

June 5, 2015

As I write, President Obama is losing a war, and there is no reason to believe he is going to change course. Iraq and Syria are likely to grow much worse in the coming months. And Hillary Clinton has supported the president at every point in his failing campaign against the Islamic State.

"Hillary Clinton plants herself firmly with White House in Iraq," CNN reported in June 2014, recounting a talk where Clinton blamed the rise of the Islamic State on the Maliki government and declared, "We certainly don’t want to fight."

The next week, asked if President Obama had handled the "JV team" badly, Clinton said, "I would have advised him to do exactly as I believe he is now doing." Indeed, Clinton added a few days later, "The United States should not be committed to doing very much at all."

That was before the Islamic State established a twenty-first century Caliphate, massacred religious minorities at Mt. Sinjar, and beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff. The president addressed the nation on September 10, announcing a military campaign involving airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, partnerships with the Iraqi Army and Syrian rebels, counterterrorism operations, and humanitarian relief.

Suddenly Clinton’s noninterventionism disappeared. "President Obama has laid out a strategy for helping the Iraqi government combat this threat and a broad coalition of nations has come together to answer that call," she said on October 6.

"I think that military action is critical," she added. "In fact, I would say essential, to try to prevent their further advance and their holding of more territory."

Eight months later, the Islamic State stretches from the outskirts of Aleppo in the west to Ramadi in the east. The Iraqi Army is in shambles, the campaign to retake Mosul indefinitely postponed, the United States hasn’t hit the terrorists’ headquarters in Raqqa for fear of civilian casualties, the White House is urging networks not to play b-roll of jihadists on the march, and administration officials, in an echo of Vietnam, have brought back the body count. Do you hear Hillary Clinton voicing concern, suggesting changes in policy, warning that the current strategy isn’t working?

Mostly what you hear from Clinton is nothing, a pronounced and unnerving silence—a refusal to weigh in on those many public questions that she and her army of consultants haven’t already poll tested, focus-grouped, picked clean of controversy and novelty and interest. On a paramount matter of national security, she does nothing but parrot the Obama line. "You can’t very well put American or Western troops in," she said in February.

If Obama were to reverse course and authorize ground troops in Iraq and Syria, of course Hillary Clinton would announce her support. But that’s not going to happen—the aim of Obama’s foreign policy is precisely to avoid large-scale deployments of ground forces. And it’s the very knowledge of her caprice, her cravenness, which is all the more infuriating. Obama at least is an ideologue: He was against the war from the beginning, and wants to extricate the American military from the Middle East. Clinton isn’t interested in national security. She's interested in political viability.

The real Clinton "narrative" has nothing to do with achievement or competence or public policy. It’s about self-preservation. Clinton was a DLC-friendly moderate when it suited her. Now she’s an Elizabeth Warren pugilist because that’s what’s in. She voted for the Iraq war when it was popular and supported by the foreign policy establishment, opposed the surge for political reasons, backed the American withdrawal in 2011 despite the obvious risks, and renounced her initial vote in 2014. There’s no consistency or logic behind her positions. What they all share is being the politically expedient stance at each particular moment.

Bill Clinton believed in the Third Way, George W. Bush in the Freedom Agenda, and Barack Obama in the New Foundation. What does Hillary Clinton believe in? Getting by. It’s worked so far. But what ought to worry her is that doing the safe thing to win the Democratic primary—identifying as closely as possible with President Obama—may establish the foundations of a competitive general election.

In a devastating article headlined "Why Hillary Can’t Run on Her State Department Record," Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin tears apart Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom. It’s a policy-by-policy deconstruction: an "Asia Pivot" to nowhere, a deadlocked Middle East peace process, public diplomacy that’s failed to improve foreign views of the United States, a "Russian Reset" dismissed as "the invention of Hillary Clinton," opposition to the very sanctions the White House now credits with bringing Iran to the negotiating table, and a secretary of state ignorant of the mounting dangers in postwar Libya—the latest outpost of the Islamic State.

What we have, then, is a presidential frontrunner who won’t lead—who won’t call for an increase in airstrikes, or a relaxation of rules of engagement, or the forward deployment of special operators to call in close air support for our proxies—against a terrorist army that already is inspiring attacks in the United States. A frontrunner who either tacitly supported or actively championed the policies that allowed the Islamic State to form, grow, and kill: nonintervention in Syria and the removal of our troops from Iraq. Whose record is deplorable. Who has outsourced her foreign policy to an unpopular incumbent president.

"I think we turn away from it at our peril," Clinton said of Iraq last year, "because I think this is a long-term challenge." The Islamic State doesn’t have to be a long-term challenge for the United States: Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated once before, and it can be defeated again. But it is certainly a long-term challenge for Clinton. There will come a point, sometime next year, when she will be confronted with the consequences of her actions as secretary of state and tireless champion of Obama. His war will hang over her; she won't be able to escape it. A large majority already disapproves of his handling of the Islamic State. And no candidate—not Bill Clinton, and certainly not his tone-deaf wife—can spin that record of straw into gold.