Still Lots to Choke on About HRC’s 2002 AUMF Vote

Hillary Clinton was also, and may continue to be, in favor of executive action. (Photo: Marc Nozell / Flickr)

Hillary Clinton was also, and may continue to be, in favor of executive action. (Photo: Marc Nozell / Flickr)

There was something for everyone — Democrats and progressives in general — to dislike about Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Conventional wisdom holds that it was an exercise in political opportunism and that, like many in Congress, including a number of Democrats, she had no intention of bucking the post-9/11 tenor of the times. For progressives, her willingness to reap the benefits of supporting a popular president while putting both the United States and the Middle East at almost certain risk of war for reasons obscure to most of us was the kiss of death.

For those less left who felt no need to to abandon her for an expedient vote, even after the United States invaded Iraq and lit a fuse to the whole region, the alternative was also frightening — that Ms. Clinton failed to anticipate how the vote would come back to haunt her future political aspirations. In other words, she was either a unconscionable legislator, an incompetent politician, or both.

But, as some, none more eloquent than Michael Crowley (now of Politico) in a 2007 New Republic article, asked:

What if the hawkish Hillary of 2002 wasn’t just motivated by political opportunism? What if she really believed in the war?

Crowley’s case is convincing.

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.

Crowley illustrates that point (read the article) and then elaborates.

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, [Secretary of State Madeline] 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.

I know — Bill, not Hillary, as Crowley acknowledges.

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. [Shades of George H.W.]

To Hillary Clinton, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq may not have seemed like the United States was being enlisted into the Bushes’ vendetta against Iraq — unfinished business, Hussein’s threats against H.W. — because Bill Clinton and she also nursed a grudge against Hussein. Depending on whether or not you support her and to what extent, this might either explain, justify, or excuse her vote.

Of equal concern, however, is the apparent faith in executive authority that Ms. Clinton shared with George W.’s administration. Crowley writes, “Thanks to the excesses of the Bush administration, the phrase ‘executive authority’ has a dirty ring to it these days [2007], and Hillary rarely talks much about it in public. But her advisers say it remains a guiding principle of her thinking.” In fact, Crowley was granted an opportunity to speak briefly with Ms. Clinton, who, among other things, said:

… “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. … for the president to get congressional approval to pursue vital national security interests.”

Crowley’s reaction: “This does not sound like someone who, in her heart, had at the time thought George Bush’s confrontation was a terrible mistake.” More from Crowley on Ms. Clinton’s disposition toward executive authority (as enhanced by the Bush administration):

In her October 2002 speech explaining her vote for President Bush’s war resolution. … [Ms. Clinton] 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.”

When called upon to vote for Ms. Clinton, should she be nominated, I am certainly appreciative of the lesser-of-two evils argument and the imperative to just “hold our noses” and vote. It is true that this may be the worst possible time for a Republican administration, which would likely throw oil on the fires of Islamic extremism, tensions with Russia, and global warming. But it is partly Democratic refusal to run candidates for president with truly progressive agendas that has left us in such dire straits. Since the heyday of Bush, such a candidate running in place of Kerry and Obama might not have won — Wall Street ruled, of course — but, at least, the candidacy would have signaled to the American public that this is the type of candidate the Democrats planned to run from now on and these are the programs they hoped to enact.

True progressives, as well as those farther left, are now expected to bite the bullet and fall in line behind Ms. Clinton if she is the candidate. But, had more progressive candidates been nominated for president in recent years, all Democrats, including those clustered around the center, would have been expected to support them. Looking back, it seems like an opportunity lost: The centrists might have been less resistant to voting progressive than those of us on the left — more ideologically inflexible by definition, as are those on the far right — who will be asked to support Ms. Clinton should she be nominated.