|“We don’t do [ Iraqi ] body counts.”
— General Tommy Franks, US Central Command
IRAQ WAR CO$T
10/10/02: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted AGAINST the Levin amendment, which would have required UN approval for the use of force
against Iraq; and, failing that, another Congressional vote authorizing the President to use American military force.
10/11/02: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted TO authorize President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
She said that Saddam had given “aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members.”
2003: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she voted FOR the war "with conviction."
2004: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she is NOT sorry she voted for a resolution authorizing President Bush to take
military action in Iraq despite the recent problems there because "clearly Saddam Hussein has been a real problem
for the international community for more than a decade."
10/11/02: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted TO authorize President Bush to use military force against Iraq. She said that Saddam had given “aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members.”
2003: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she voted FOR the war "with conviction."
2004: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she is NOT sorry she voted for a resolution authorizing President Bush to take military action in Iraq despite the recent problems there because "clearly Saddam Hussein has been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade."
Hillary's WarMay 29, 2007
by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.
On a Thursday afternoon in early May, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton rose before a nearly empty Senate chamber and proposed that Congress undo one of the most significant acts in its recent history: the authorization of the Iraq war. In remarks lasting just two minutes, she spoke bluntly: The “authorization to use force has run its course, and it is time to reverse the failed policies of President Bush and to end this war as soon as possible.” She added, “If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him.”
This was Clinton’s latest and boldest attempt to distance herself from her own vote for the Iraq war in October 2002 — a vote she has described as “probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make.” At the time she cast that vote, she was among the Senate’s most outspoken Democrats warning of Saddam Hussein’s dangerous arsenal. Unlike nearly all of her fellow Democrats, she even went so far as to argue that Saddam Hussein gave assistance to Al Qaeda members. Now she speaks with equal fervor about the need to bring the war to an end. In addition to calling for the deauthorization of the war, she has also voiced support for cutting off financing to many combat troops in Iraq by March 2008.
And yet even as she has backed away from her original vote to allow the war, she has also resisted pressure from within her party to apologize for it. Instead, she has presented voters with a version of her record that places more emphasis on her reservations about going to war than on her support for the president. Along the way, important aspects of that record — like how much of the available intelligence she reviewed before her vote — have escaped scrutiny.
Clinton declined to discuss her views on Iraq for this article, despite repeated requests for an interview. This article draws on her public statements; her private discussions; Congressional documents; and dozens of interviews with advisers to Clinton and with past and present senators and their aides. Many of those who spoke with us demanded anonymity because of concerns about Senate norms of confidentiality.
Senator Clinton’s aides and strategists say they have worried for months that as the party’s base has overwhelmingly turned against the war, questions about her vote, and her views on Iraq more broadly, could derail her bid to become the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. The answers to many of the most persistent questions about her war record are hidden in plain sight. What those answers reveal about her approach to Iraq — her votes, her views, her political maneuvering — may provide as good an insight as we have into what sort of president she would be.
‘The Wrath of Our Country’
For Senator Clinton, reaching a decision on an American-led invasion of Iraq during the fall of 2002 involved a knotty set of calculations, some of which seemed preordained. If she voted yes, she would be giving President Bush the authority to launch a pre-emptive war — a concept that must have reminded her of America’s failed war in Vietnam, which she opposed as a student at Wellesley College and Yale Law School. On the other hand, voting against the resolution could relax the pressure on a brutal dictator whose perceived effort to develop weapons of mass destruction was widely seen as a threat to world peace.
Politics too played a role in her deliberations, as they did with many of her colleagues. Since the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Hillary Clinton had labored to establish her national-security credentials. The day after the attacks, she vowed that any country that chose to harbor terrorists and “those who in any way aid or comfort them whatsoever will now face the wrath of our country.” Such tough comments reflected the mood of the country — and also dovetailed with her efforts to win over moderate voters. Clinton knew she could never advance her career — or win the presidency, especially — if she didn’t prove that she was tough enough to be commander in chief. Female candidates, it’s presumed, have often suffered as a result of the stereotype that they could never be as strong as men. Now the defense of the homeland had become such a paramount issue that Americans insisted their president — man or woman — protect them from another terrorist attack. Only a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the fear of terrorism was so widespread in the United States, it was relatively easy for the Bush administration to fold a confrontation with a tyrannical anti-American dictator into its overall “war on terror.”
Of course, Clinton was tough. And she was experienced. But according to aides and strategists, her insecurity about her public image and her nascent national-security credentials made it difficult, if not impossible, for her to vote no.
Her vote was further complicated by her shifting relationship with the sitting commander in chief. She had hoped George W. Bush would continue to pursue diplomacy with Iraq whether or not Congress gave him the power to wage war — indeed, the president pledged to do so days before the vote. If Clinton was going to support Bush, it would mean she would have to extend him the benefit of the doubt.
Back in 1991, most Democrats in the Senate opposed the resolution that narrowly gave the first President Bush the authority to attack Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This time, the debate played out differently. As heated argument gripped the United Nations and antiwar protesters began taking to the streets around the world, Democratic leaders did not try to shape a party line.
As she explained her vote on the Senate floor, Clinton noted, “Perhaps 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.” It was not a coincidence that Clinton invoked her time in the White House, or her husband’s record. Bill Clinton served as her main counsel on the Iraq war vote, longtime associates of theirs told us. He had much personal experience to offer: while he was president in 1998, the United States, assisted by Britain, launched more than 400 cruise missiles and flew 650 air attacks against suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction sites in Iraq after Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. “Mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction,” President Clinton had said at the time. “He will deploy them, and he will use them.”
Several days before the Oct. 11 vote was scheduled in Congress, President Bush made a televised speech from Cincinnati leaving no doubt that he was prepared to strike Iraq if Hussein refused to disarm. The president, secondarily, spoke of one last try at diplomacy; Clinton publicly gravitated toward this option and hoped, she said, that Bush was serious about pursuing it.
Secrets of the Senate
As she had always done, Clinton prepared for her decision on the war vote by doing her homework, or what she has called her “due diligence.” This included, she said, attending classified briefings on Capitol Hill concerning intelligence on Iraq. Indeed, Clinton was far more prescient than many of her Senate colleagues about the potential difficulty of rebuilding the country. In a number of private meetings with top Bush officials, according to people in the room, Clinton asked pointed and skeptical questions about how the administration planned to deal with the inevitable challenges of governing Iraq after the invasion.
But it’s not clear that she was equally diligent when it came to the justifications for the war itself. So far, she has not discussed publicly whether she ever read the complete classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate, the most comprehensive judgment of the intelligence community about Iraq’s W.M.D., which was made available to all 100 senators. The 90-page report was delivered to Congress on Oct. 1, 2002, just 10 days before the Senate vote. An abridged summary was made public by the Bush administration, but it painted a less subtle picture of Iraq’s weapons program than the full classified report. To get a complete picture would require reading the entire document, which, according to a version of the report made public in 2004, contained numerous caveats and dissents on Iraq’s weapons and capacities.
According to Senate aides, because Clinton was not yet on the Armed Services Committee, she did not have anyone working for her with the security clearances needed to read the entire N.I.E. and the other highly classified reports that pertained to Iraq.
She could have done the reading herself. Senators were able to access the N.I.E. at two secure locations in the Capitol complex. Nonetheless, only six senators personally read the report, according to a 2005 television interview with Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia and then the vice chairman of the intelligence panel. Earlier this year, on the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire, Clinton was confronted by a woman who had traveled from New York to ask her if she had read the intelligence report. According to Eloise Harper of ABC News, Clinton responded that she had been briefed on it.
“Did you read it?” the woman screamed.
Clinton replied that she had been briefed, though she did not say by whom.
The question of whether Clinton took the time to read the N.I.E. report is critically important. Indeed, one of Clinton’s Democratic colleagues, Bob Graham, the Florida senator who was then the chairman of the intelligence committee, said he voted against the resolution on the war, in part, because he had read the complete N.I.E. report. Graham said he found that it did not persuade him that Iraq possessed W.M.D. As a result, he listened to Bush’s claims more skeptically. “I was able to apply caveat emptor,” Graham, who has since left the Senate, observed in 2005. He added regretfully, “Most of my colleagues could not.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2002, Senate Democrats, including Clinton, held a caucus over lunch on the second floor of the Capitol. There, Graham says he “forcefully” urged his colleagues to read the complete 90-page N.I.E. before casting such a monumental vote.
In her own remarks on the Senate floor on Oct. 10, 2002, Clinton noted the existence of “differing opinions within this body.” Then she went on to offer a lengthy catalog of Saddam Hussein’s crimes. She cited unnamed “intelligence reports” showing that between 1998 and 2002 “Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile-delivery capability and his nuclear program.” Both the public and secret intelligence estimates on Iraq contained such analysis, but the complete N.I.E. report also included other views. A dissent by the State Department’s intelligence arm concluded — correctly, as it turned out — that Iraq was not rebuilding its nuclear program. Clinton continued, accusing Iraq’s leader of giving “aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members.” This statement fit squarely within the ominous warning she issued the day after Sept. 11.
Clinton’s linking of Iraq’s leader and Al Qaeda, however, was unsupported by the conclusions of the N.I.E. and other secret intelligence reports that were available to senators before the vote. Indeed, the one document that supported Clinton’s statement, a public letter from the C.I.A. to Senator Graham, mentioned “growing indications of a relationship” between Al Qaeda and Iraq but acknowledged that those indications were based on “sources of varying reliability.” In fact, the classified reports available to all senators at the time found that Iraq was not allied with Al Qaeda, and that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden harbored feelings of deep mistrust and enmity for each other. A Defense Intelligence Agency report in February 2002, disclosed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan in 2005, concluded: “Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.” A C.I.A. report of June 21, 2002, partially released in 2006, said, “The ties between Saddam and Bin Laden appear much like those between rival intelligence services, with each trying to exploit the other for its own benefit.” In an interview, Bob Graham said: “I don’t think any agency pretended to make a case that there was a strong linkage between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. It wasn’t in the N.I.E.”
Nevertheless, on the sensitive issue of collaboration between Al Qaeda and Iraq, Senator Clinton found herself adopting the same argument that was being aggressively pushed by the administration. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials had repeated their claim frequently, and by early October 2002, two out of three Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was connected to the Sept. 11 attacks. By contrast, most of the other Senate Democrats, even those who voted for the war authorization, did not make the Qaeda connection in their remarks on the Senate floor. One Democratic senator who voted for the war resolution and praised President Bush for his course of “moderation and deliberation,” Joe Biden of Delaware, actively assailed the reports of Al Qaeda in Iraq, calling them “much exaggerated.” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California described any link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda as “tenuous.”
The Democratic senator who came closest to echoing Clinton’s remarks about Hussein’s supposed assistance to Al Qaeda was Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Yet even Lieberman noted that “the relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime is a subject of intense debate within the intelligence community.”
For most of those who had served in the Clinton administration, the supposed link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had come to seem baseless. “We all knew it was [expletive],” said Kenneth Pollack, who was a national-security official under President Clinton and a leading proponent of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Pollack says he discussed Iraq with Clinton before her vote in 2002, but he won’t disclose his advice.
The Saddam-Al Qaeda link, so aggressively pushed by the Bush administration, was later debunked as false. So how could Clinton, named in 2006 by The Washingtonian magazine as the “brainiest” senator, have gotten such a critical point wrong? Referring to the larger question of her support for the authorization, Clinton said in February of this year, “My vote was a sincere vote based on the facts and assurances that I had at the time.” She added: “And I have taken responsibility for my vote.”
A Forgotten Vote
In the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 2002, the Senate voted, 77 to 23, to authorize the Bush administration’s war against Iraq. The result was shaped in part by the coming midterm elections. Some of the senators up for re-election did not want to appear weak on an issue that the administration had skillfully tied to America’s “war on terror.” Clinton, having been elected two years earlier, had no such immediate worries. Even so, she positioned herself carefully.
For all the scrutiny of Clinton’s vote, an important moment has been lost. It came several hours earlier, on Oct. 10, 2002, the same day Clinton spoke about why she would support the Iraq-war authorization. In her remarks on the Senate floor, she stressed the need for diplomacy with Iraq on the part of the Bush administration and insisted she wasn’t voting for “any new doctrine of pre-emption, or for unilateralism.” Yet just a few hours after her speech, Clinton voted against an amendment to the war resolution that would have required the diplomatic emphasis that Clinton had gone on record as supporting — and that she now says she had favored all along.
The long-overlooked vote was on an amendment introduced by Carl Levin and several other Senate Democrats who hoped to rein in President Bush by requiring a two-step process before Congress would actually authorize the use of force. Senators knew full well the wide latitude that they were handing to Bush, which is why some tried to put the brakes on the march to war. The amendment called, first, for the U.N. to pass a new resolution explicitly approving the use of force against Iraq. It also required the president to return to Congress if his U.N. efforts failed and, in Senator Levin’s words, “urge us to authorize a going-it-alone, unilateral resolution.” That resolution would allow the president to wage war as a last option.
Clinton has never publicly explained her vote against the Levin amendment or said why she stayed on the sidelines as 11 other senators debated it for 95 minutes that day. In the end, she joined the significant majority of 75 senators who voted against Levin’s proposal. (A similar measure in the House also lost, though it gained the backing of 155 members.) The 75 senators were largely those who voted later that night in favor of the war authorization. Only four senators — Feinstein, Rockefeller, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin — voted yes on Levin’s resolution and then voted yes on Bush’s war authorization. If Clinton had done that, she subsequently could have far more persuasively argued, perhaps, that she had supported a multilateral diplomatic approach.
Protesters at the Door
The Russell Senate Office Building is the oldest of the three buildings that house the offices of the nation’s 100 senators. Its corridors are lengthy, and its offices are cavernous. But on the morning of March 6, 2003, even this vast building could not contain the raucous sounds made by dozens of chanting and angry women dressed in pink, who congregated outside Russell 476.
The protesters were members of a left-wing group organized a few months earlier in opposition to the war. Their name, Code Pink: Women for Peace, was intended to ridicule the Bush administrations color-coded terrorism security alerts. That morning, the group took its cause to the door of Senator Clinton.
The Code Pink women had decided to mount a last-gasp attempt to stop the invasion of Iraq by confronting senators in the halls of Congress, according to one of the group’s founders, Medea Benjamin. Though earnest, their campaign was mostly symbolic, with the war just days away. Not surprisingly, Clinton’s senior staff members rejected Code Pink’s demand for a meeting. Undeterred, the women camped outside Clinton’s office. Her aides eventually told Code Pink’s leaders that the senator would meet with them in about an hour. The Code Pink women were directed to a nearby room where they passed the time singing peace songs and chatting.
Suddenly, big walnut doors were thrown open and Clinton, dressed in a bright blue coat on top of a black pants suit, strode into the room. The women rose quickly from their chairs and applauded. Clinton thanked them and paid homage to the group’s trademark.
“I like pink tulips,” she said with a smile.
Clinton then addressed the obvious gap between Code Pink’s position on the war and her own. “I disagree on an aspect of those concerns,” she said. Clinton then asked if the group had a spokeswoman.
A tall woman approached the table. Medea Benjamin introduced herself and thanked Clinton for taking the time to meet with them.
Benjamin, a veteran of causes on the left, explained to Clinton that she had recently led a delegation to Baghdad. Clinton nodded but said nothing. “We know that you’re a wonderful woman,” Benjamin told the senator, “and that deep down, we really think you agree with us.”
Business being business, the Code Pink leader then cut to the chase. “There are two ways to go,” she intoned. Her group could give Clinton a pink badge of courage if she supported their position. If not, the group was prepared to give her a pink slip.
Clinton struck a conciliatory note.
“I admire your willingness to speak out on behalf of the women and children of Iraq,” she said.
When asked by one of the women why the United States took on the responsibility to disarm a country like Iraq, Clinton replied that without “U.S. leadership” there would not “be a willingness to take on very difficult problems” because of the “attitudes of many people in the world community today.” She cited her husband’s muscular foreign-policy actions, at times taken unilaterally, as a precedent for the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq. “I’m talking specifically about what had to be done in Bosnia and Kosovo, where my husband could not get a U.N. resolution to save the Kosovar Albanians” from the ethnic-cleansing policies of Slobodan Milosevic, Clinton told the women. “We had to do it alone.”
Another Code Pink member then asked Clinton if she believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, Clinton replied, had “such a proven track record” that he could only be described as having “an obsession with weapons of mass destruction.” She then seemed to suggest, but did not explicitly say, that she had read all the secret intelligence reports on Iraq available to senators. “I ended up voting for the resolution after carefully reviewing the information and the intelligence that I had available,” she said. Clinton told the Code Pink protesters that she had also done her homework by “talking with people” she trusted.
Then Clinton turned to leave. “Sorry, guys,” she added.
But before she could make her exit, a Code Pink member told her, “I heard that you were willing to give up the life of innocent people in Iraq to find Saddam Hussein, so I just want to give you my pink slip.” The woman then tried to shove a pink undergarment in Clinton’s hand.
Clinton backed off and shot a look of fury at the woman. “I’m the senator from New York,” Clinton snapped, wagging a finger at her. “I will never put my people’s security at risk. I resent that.”
The women had videotaped everything and, just days before the introduction of Clinton’s presidential campaign, they posted the video on YouTube.
The Code Pink protest was a sign that Clinton’s vote had the potential to cause her some big problems. And the war itself hadn’t even begun.
In early 2003, Senator Clinton joined the Senate Armed Services Committee, burnishing her national-security credentials. She developed a friendship with Senator Levin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and another member, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a graduate of West Point. Though Levin and Reed both voted against the war (Reed said at the time that “acting alone would increase the risk to our forces”), once the conflict began, they hewed to a mostly centrist course, becoming the principal architects of Democratic military policy in the Senate. Clinton largely followed their lead on Iraq policy.
In November 2003, six months after Bush announced that “major combat operations” in Iraq had “ended,” Clinton traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq for the first time. Soon after her trip, and coincidentally two days after Saddam Hussein’s capture, she delivered a major foreign-policy speech about the two countries at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. There, she sounded a lot like President Bush, even as she offered up some criticism of postwar reconstruction. She called for a “tough-minded, muscular foreign and defense policy.” She urged “patience” and worried about the political will “to stay the course.” “Failure is not an option” in Iraq and Afghanistan, she declared. “We have no option but to stay involved and committed” in Iraq, she said, calling her decision to authorize the President to invade Iraq “the right vote,” one “I stand by.”
Over the course of 2004, the public began souring on the war. But Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was unable to capitalize on the country’s mood in that year’s presidential election at least in part because of his inability to adequately explain his conflicting votes on Iraq. As the year went on, intelligence analysts as well as prominent Democrats and a few Republicans painted ever-darker assessments of the prospects for success in Iraq. In the fall of 2004, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a member of the Armed Services Committee, listed 13 ways that “George Bush’s war has not made America safer.” “By any reasonable standard, our policy in Iraq is failing,” Kennedy said. “The outlook is bleak, and it’s easy to understand why.”
In February 2005, Clinton took a second trip to Iraq and delivered a somewhat upbeat assessment about the progress being made and the chances for peace, despite mounting evidence that the insurgency was gaining momentum. She told reporters in Baghdad that the insurgents had failed to disrupt the recently held Iraqi interim elections. She noted that their horrific suicide attacks were a sign of desperation and that much of Iraq was “functioning quite well.” Her remarks echoed many of President Bush’s statements at the time about the supposed progress being made in Iraq. While she was there, a wave of attacks in Baghdad shattered the celebrations of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest days, killing dozens, including an American solider.
Soon after, speaking from Baghdad, Clinton made a rare appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where she said it “would be a mistake” to call for the immediate withdrawal of troops or set a timetable. “We don’t want to send a signal to insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain,” she said. She reiterated that she was still comfortable with her stance on Iraq.
By the fall of 2005, however, the situation was growing increasingly dire. In Iraq, preparations began to elect a new government even as the security situation worsened. In the United States, there were intensified calls for some kind of troop reduction. As the number of American fatalities passed the 2,000 mark, in October 2005, the Iraq war had become increasingly unpopular at home. The American public’s support further deteriorated after it became clear that the Bush administration’s prewar intelligence was fatally flawed — as was its overly optimistic forecast for the ease of occupation. In November 2005, Clinton supported a Democratic proposal that called on the president to prepare a timetable for withdrawal. The measure didn’t pass, but Clinton was now on record for the first time voting in support of a phased redeployment.
Shortly afterward, the debate took a stark turn when a former marine and a Democratic hawk on military affairs, Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, suddenly called for a swift withdrawal of all American troops. Thanks in large part to Murtha’s credibility in the military community, his remarks quickly broadened the antiwar alliance. Clinton followed with a pivot of her own. Not surprisingly, the first signal of Clinton’s intention to tack came via Bill Clinton, who had taken on the role of saying things that Senator Clinton was not yet prepared to say. Addressing students at the American University in Dubai on Nov. 16, 2005, the former president declared that the invasion was a “big mistake.” He added that he didn’t “agree with what was done.”
On Nov. 29, two weeks after President Clinton’s comments to students and Murtha’s plan made the front pages, Senator Clinton sent a lengthy letter to her supporters detailing her latest position on Iraq. In a piercing tone, she faulted the Bush administration for misleading her and others on its intentions to pursue diplomacy as well as mismanaging the situation following the invasion. On the question of troop levels, she charted a middle ground, warning against an “open-ended commitment” but rejecting an immediate pullout. And while she accepted “responsibility” for her vote in 2002, she voiced no regret for it.
“Before I voted in 2002,” she wrote, “the administration publicly and privately assured me that they intended to use their authority to build international support in order to get the U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq, as articulated by the president in his Cincinnati speech on Oct. 7, 2002. As I said in my October 2002 floor statement, I took ‘the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a U.N. resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible.’ ”
While Clinton insisted that the president misled her about his intention to pursue diplomacy, the resolution did not specifically require the president to pursue any further negotiations. Rather, it said he could use force whenever he determined that “further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone either a) will not adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq or b) is not likely to lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.” If the president decided that future diplomacy was not going to work, he was then authorized “to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” in order “to enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions,” including the resolution from 1991, which the White House asserted authorized the use of force against Iraq.
In her letter to supporters, Clinton returned to the claim that the prewar intelligence that she and others relied on involving “weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda turned out to be false.” Clinton was stuck in her own Iraq predicament: if she admitted she was wrong from the start, she would be admitting a mistake in the biggest vote of her career. But if she continued to describe her vote as a vote for diplomacy, she would have to explain why she voted against the amendment that explicitly called for diplomacy. Less than three weeks after blasting Bush in her letter, Clinton had an opportunity to personally deliver her criticism to the president. In mid-December of 2005, she and a few other senators met privately with Bush in the White House to discuss Iraq. But Clinton said nothing at the meeting to the president, according to an account the next day in The Washington Post. A White House official confirmed that report to us, saying Clinton’s silence at such occasional meetings was not unusual.
Clinton may have moderated her stance on Iraq, but it was not enough to placate the women of Code Pink. In late 2005, they introduced a new campaign of weekly vigils which they aptly called “Bird-dog Hillary.” At two Manhattan fund-raisers attended by Clinton, Code Pink members protested, shouting questions to her about the war, but Clinton did not respond. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the dean of the Senate, showed up at one of the fund-raisers, which was held at an Upper West Side residence. Unable to engage Clinton as she entered the building, the group turned its attention to Byrd as he climbed out of a limousine and walked with a cane toward the event. Courtney Lee Adams, a Code Pink member, asked Senator Byrd if he could help convince Clinton to change her views on Iraq. According to Adams, the 88-year-old senator replied, “Ladies, I don’t tell her to do anything.”
The Somewhat-Lonely Middle
Late in the afternoon of June 14, 2006, a group of Democratic senators and their aides headed to Room 224, a small sitting room in the Capitol belonging to the Democratic minority leader, Harry Reid. The room had held a series of private conferences over the previous days at which a small group of Democrats discussed Iraq policy. The secluded location meant that the senators could plot the party’s strategy and discuss their differences away from their Republican colleagues and the press.
That day, the usual attendees were surprised to discover a newcomer in attendance: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was one of the first to arrive and took a place on a love seat, one of the two couches in the room. Sitting next to her was Carl Levin. As the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Levin was the de facto leader of the session, since the meeting involved amendments to the pending defense authorization bill. Clinton draped one arm around the back of the couch and chewed gum, a participant recalled.
Reid began by recalling Senator John Kerry’s recent proposal to withdraw American troops by the end of the year. After making some dismissive remarks about Kerry’s amendment, Clinton largely remained quiet over the course of the next 20 to 30 minutes. Senator Reid, the meeting’s host, then turned to Clinton and asked to hear her thoughts. There was a long pause.
“It was odd to give her the stage on this,” said another participant in the meeting, noting that Clinton had not attended any of the previous strategy sessions. However, the participant added, Clinton was the “big enchilada,” so “all eyes turned to her to hear what she thinks.”
Clinton spoke for five or six minutes.
“I don’t support a fixed date for getting out, and I don’t support an open-ended commitment,” Clinton told her colleagues. Then she picked up on ideas put forth in an alternative amendment then being proposed by Senators Levin and Jack Reed. Their amendment, which had no force of law, called for the president to “begin the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq” before the end of the year.
Clinton caustically reminded her colleagues why she was supporting a less confrontational posture toward the White House than the Kerry measure.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” she said, “we don’t control anything.” Clinton went on to lecture her colleagues about the political acumen of administration officials. “Karl Rove and George Bush are no fools,” she warned.
Nevertheless, Senator Russ Feingold, one of the sponsors of Kerry’s amendment, argued that “Democrats want us out” of Iraq, according to participants. That was true — in a CBS News poll taken a few days earlier, 64 percent of Democrats said they wanted the United States to “leave as soon as possible,” even if Iraq was not completely stable. Republicans overwhelmingly disagreed: 73 percent favored staying “as long as it takes.” Independents were divided.
Clinton was taking a broader view. “I face the base all the time,” she told her colleagues, according to a participant. “I think we need wiggle room.”
As the meeting wound down, the senators grew weary. There was some light banter about how the Iraq war might play out among the plethora of Democratic presidential hopefuls. Clinton, her colleagues recalled, raised the quintessential question: whether “one of the people in this room will be making the decision” about American troops in Iraq come January 2009.
After the meeting ended, Dianne Feinstein was pulled aside for a private conversation by Jack Reed, Carl Levin and Harry Reid, the architects of the alternative amendment calling for a phased redeployment. They asked Feinstein to join as a sponsor of their measure, comforted by the fact that she did not have presidential ambitions.
According to a Senate aide, Reid told Feinstein, “It’s not good to have presidential aspirants have their names appear” as original sponsors of the amendment, “even if it is viewed as a consensus” resolution. Politics complicate policymaking, and presidential politics complicate it even more so. Feinstein signed on. Reid added a final sponsor, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, who also had no presidential plans. On June 19, Levin announced his amendment and its sponsors.
Two days later, he introduced it on the floor of the Senate. He was followed by Jack Reed, who said, “I join with my colleague, Senator Levin, and Senators Feinstein and Salazar, to offer this amendment.” Suddenly, Clinton showed up on the Senate floor, wanting to speak as soon as possible. Normally, the speakers go in the order of seniority, with the bill’s original sponsors getting the privilege to speak first. Waiting her turn to speak was one of the sponsors, Senator Feinstein. Senator Levin, who controlled the allocation of floor time for the Democrats, appeared flummoxed, a Senate aide recalled. But he agreed to Clinton’s surprise request to take the floor as the next Democratic speaker.
Clinton’s first words took some insiders by surprise: “I rise in support of the Levin amendment of which I am proud to be an original co-sponsor.”
“We were puzzled,” the aide said, because no one had told them about Clinton’s sudden ascendancy to a leadership role on the measure. Indeed, just a few minutes earlier, Jack Reed, in his remarks, had not included Clinton in his list of sponsors.
The original text of the amendment filed in the Senate read “to be proposed by Mr. Levin (for himself, Mr. Reed, Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Salazar).” But off to the side, in handwriting, a single word would be added: “Clinton.” Her name was inserted, records show, on June 19, the same day that Levin unveiled his amendment with the other sponsors but not Clinton.
“I remember seeing the handwritten bill and wondering what had happened,” a senior Senate official recalled. The explanation, from a Senate aide involved in the discussion, was that Clinton had “intervened personally” with Harry Reid and “forced her way in.” With Clinton’s inclusion, the rule of banning candidates was shredded. And “once you do one,” a Senate aide said, “the dam is broken.” Soon, other future presidential contenders, including Barack Obama of Illinois, signed on. Reid would not comment for this article. But according to another Senate aide, Reid couldn’t say no, because to her colleagues, Clinton was “first among equals.”
What Clinton had accomplished was symbolic and important, even if it went unnoticed by reporters. Clinton could take credit for a compromise that garnered 39 votes, one independent and one Republican in addition to 37 Democrats. Still later, as the war worsened, she could argue that she had long backed some kind of withdrawal. She could also showcase on her campaign Web site her role as a “leader” in the Senate on national security.
In her impromptu remarks on the Senate floor, Clinton presented the usual litany of criticism against Republicans. Then, for the first time in her public speeches, she offered a new interpretation of her own actions in 2002. The revised account contained an ironic twist with respect to Levin, who had just graciously granted her the floor.
The authority Congress given the president and his administration four years earlier, Clinton explained, had been “misused” because they acted “without allowing the inspectors to finish the job in order to rush to war.” In other words, Bush had given short shrift to diplomacy. Clinton did not mention her own vote against Levin’s 2002 amendment, the one that would have required the president to pursue a more diplomatic approach before any invasion of Iraq. Her singling out of President Bush for misusing the authority from Congress played so well it soon became a staple of her campaign speeches.
The events of the next few days seemed to validate Clinton’s position. Two days later, on June 23, she was applauded at a gathering of moderate-leaning Democrats, when she articulated a more-pronounced antiwar message. The reception was in marked contrast to the boos that greeted her 10 days earlier at a meeting of liberal activists. Some antiwar activists and previous critics now praised her for embracing redeployment and moving closer to their views. Roger Hickey, who invited Clinton to the conference where she was booed, said her action in the Senate “was a significant new movement for her and the Democratic Party.” With the 2006 midterm elections approaching, the party was sharpening its antiwar message.
After easily fending off an antiwar primary opponent in September, Clinton prepared to face off with the Republican John Spencer in the general election. (Spencer, a former mayor of Yonkers, tried to portray Hillary as soft on national security without success.) Later that September, at a Democratic hearing on Iraq designed to showcase military criticism of the Bush administration, Clinton arrived late but made a big splash.
The hearing featured three recently retired senior military officers. Before Clinton’s arrival, they blasted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s management of the war. But when she asked them what would happen if the United States withdrew from Iraq under a fixed deadline, they all said the consequences would be disastrous. One witness said, “The result would be a civil war of some magnitude, which will turn into a regional mess.” The hearing was ended shortly afterward by the Democratic chairman of the committee.
Clinton’s Senate Web site later noted the criticisms of Bush at the hearing but omitted her back and forth with the officers. According to the senior Senate official, her provocative questions prompted grumbling among some Democrats in the Senate, who wanted to keep the party’s message straightforward and simple. Republicans, on the other hand, were gleeful and swiftly tried to use the exchange to their advantage. On a Sunday talk show, Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio emphasized the testimony and Clinton’s role in eliciting it.
The midterm elections signaled profound voter dissatisfaction with Iraq and the Republicans. Many Bush allies in Congress were swept out of office as Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate. Clinton crushed Spencer, winning two-thirds of the vote.
Clinton, in her political assessment of the election, said, “The message sent loudly and clearly by the American people” was “that we desperately need a new course.”
As she finalized her plans for a presidential bid, Clinton asked political allies from New Hampshire how her vote for the war would play out in the campaign. As she saw it, she had two options: chart a new course to escape her own Iraq record, or continue to tread water in the “somewhat-lonely middle,” where, she confided to a reporter from The New Yorker, she often found herself. One place where she was soon to be less lonely was in New Hampshire. The pool of Democratic presidential candidates was about expand — and her principal rival would be a senator even more junior than Clinton.
On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 20, 2007, Clinton stepped into history. Her presidential launch was an electronically choreographed special; thousands of e-mail messages were sent to reporters and friends. “I’m in. And I’m in to win,” she wrote. On her new presidential Web site, against a patriotic backdrop of red, white and blue, was a framed snapshot of a relaxed Clinton sitting on a couch. A click on the photo quickly took viewers to a short video of Clinton explaining why she was “in to win.”
The race she entered was already crowded with Democratic contenders. Several days earlier, Barack Obama filed papers to enter the presidential race, joining a quickly growing field that included former Senator John Edwards and Senators Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd. But Clinton stood alone, among the top three candidates, when it came to the 2002 vote on Iraq.
Obama opposed the war before it started, though he was only an Illinois state senator when the authorization vote was taken. This gained him support from the antiwar wing of the party, and he soon rose to second place in the polls behind Clinton. Edwards, the third-ranked contender in the polls, had disavowed his earlier support of the war and favored a faster withdrawal of troops than Clinton, though he didn’t have to cast any more votes.
So it was hardly a surprise that as Clinton took to the campaign trail, journalists and voters repeatedly tried to ask her whether her 2002 vote was a personal “mistake.” She has never said it was. Instead, she told “Good Morning America” that the vote “turned out to be a terrible decision for everyone” and on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” she acknowledged that “those of us in the Congress” had made “a lot of mistakes.”
Clinton, it appeared, had decided that acknowledging collective guilt could suffice. “I think at some level,” one adviser said at the time, “she thinks she has repudiated her vote.” But Democratic activists, including those in Iowa and New Hampshire, remain split over whether Clinton has been forthcoming. In Berlin, a small mill town in northern New Hampshire, a financial adviser named Roger Tilton told Clinton that he was waiting to hear her repudiate her vote. “I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all and without nuance, you can say that war authorization was a mistake,” Tilton told her. “I, and I think a lot of other primary voters — until we hear you say it, we’re not going to hear all the other great things you are saying.”
“Knowing what we know now,” Clinton replied, “I would never have voted for it.” She later added that voters would ultimately decide for themselves whether her position was acceptable. “The mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress.” The audience applauded and cheered. In Dover, N.H., she told voters: “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.”
Still, the questions kept coming. Just last month, after Clinton voted to allow a vote on a measure by Senate Democrats that would have cut off much of the Iraq-war financing by March 2008, reporters wanted to know if she actually supported the underlying legislation. “I’m not going to speculate on what I’m going to be voting on in the future,” she told reporters, shortly after the Senate rejected consideration of the legislation. Not satisfied, the journalists tried again a few hours later. By then, Clinton had a more definitive answer: “I support the underlying bill.” Her opposition to the war continued to harden. On May 24, Clinton, along with 13 other senators, including Obama, voted against an emergency-funding bill for the war, saying it “will not change our course in Iraq.”
Also in May, Clinton made another attempt to distance herself from her 2002 vote for war. The drama played out late in the afternoon on May 3, when she spoke for two minutes before a largely vacant Senate chamber. She said she wanted to deauthorize the war by repealing the original authorization on Oct. 11, 2007, the five-year anniversary of its passage. President Bush would have to seek new authorization if her proposal, co-sponsored with Robert Byrd, was enacted.
In her brief remarks, Clinton highlighted a long-forgotten piece of her Iraq record she now wished to emphasize. Hours before she voted for the war authorization, she noted, she backed an amendment by Senator Byrd “which would have limited the original authorization to one year.” Her decision to emphasize that vote, a Senate aide involved in the 2002 war debate explained, was designed “to suggest she wanted to end the war, too,” even if she later approved it.
But the Byrd amendment in 2002, which was rejected, 33 to 61, was not quite as Clinton described it. The amendment gave the president “multiple outs,” the aide said, and so it was “no big deal” and the subject of little debate at the time. Specifically, it allowed the president, after one year, to extend the war authorization “for a period or periods of 12 months each” as long as he — and he alone — determined that it was “necessary for ongoing or impending military operations against Iraq.” This “open-ended” language, the Senate aide explained, meant Clinton’s description last month was incomplete, if not misleading.
Nonetheless, Clinton quickly posted her remarks on her Senate and campaign Web sites and started an Internet campaign to “Deauthorize the War,” and several reporters uncritically repeated her version of the 2002 Byrd amendment. But the Senate aide noted, “The most potent amendment that might have stopped the war” in 2002 was “the Levin amendment, not the Byrd amendment.”
Clinton’s careful selection of her voting record may suit her presidential ambitions — at least in the short run. By ignoring Levin’s proposal, and by calling attention to just one aspect of the Byrd amendment, she was indicating that she was only tepidly pro-war in October 2002. This was Clinton’s effort to address the biggest obstacle on her path to the Democratic nomination. Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, has said, “It’s important for all Democrats to keep the word ‘mistake’ firmly on the Republicans and on President Bush.” Blaming the president and his team for their mistakes could help voters overlook some of the fine print in her own record.
In early February, Clinton told the Democratic National Committee that she would end the war in Iraq when she became president. That definitive, forward-looking pledge is what she is counting on voters to remember in 2008.