A grown-up in the weak sense

Sebastian Mallaby argues that Hillary Clinton is the only foreign policy grown-up among the Democratic presidential candidate. At one level this is true. As Mallaby points out, Clinton is the only one who unequivocally embraces the obvious next step in the quest to prevent a nuclear Iran, namely tougher sanctions. The rest of the field panders to the Bush-hating base by arguing, nonsensically, that authorizing sanctions amounts to giving Bush a blank check to go to war. In addition, Clinton refuses to apologize for her vote in favor of invading Iraq, contending that the case for war seemed reasonable at the time of her vote.
But it’s not clear that these positions reflect anything more than the standing of the candidates. Suppose that Clinton was trailing Obama, to the point that her only hope for the nomination was to appeal to the party’s hard-left base. And suppose that Obama was the clear front-runner, to the point that he was looking ahead to the presidential election. Under these circumstances, would Obama still be the candidate opting for Bush-bashing at the expense of a sensible Iran polilcy, or would that candidate be Clinton? There’s no way to know, of course, but my money is on Clinton. (The good news is that, as president, most or all of the leading Democratic contenders would be prepared to impose tough sanctions; the bad news is that we can’t be confident that any of them would leave a military option on the table).
Clinton’s unwillingness to apologize for her vote on Iraq also seems like a function of her status in the race. It might make sense for a long-shot candidate like John Edwards to pander to the anti-war base through a mea cupla over his Iraq vote, but Clinton doesn’t need to do this. And not needing to, she shouldn’t. Next year, she will be attempting to convince the electorate at large to make her commander-in-chief. Putting aside the weakness inherent in an apology, it’s clearly in her interest to say that her vote to go to war was reasonable at the time she cast it. Americans are not inclined to support a candidate whose vote on a matter or war and peace was unreasonable.
Clinton’s views on more timely matters further undercut any claim that she possesses a grown-up approach to Iraq. Clinton was, and remains, a member of the defeatist Democrats. She voted for a war funding bill that would have required the president to begin withdrawing from Iraq, and was one of only 14 Senators to vote against the funding bill that passed (without mandatory withdrawal language, but with “benchmarks”). As Frederick Kagan observes:

Had al Qaeda been allowed to drive us from Iraq in disgrace, it would control safe havens throughout Anbar, in Baghdad, up the Tigris River valley, in Baquba, and in the “triangle of death.” Al Qaeda In Iraq had already proclaimed a puppet state, the Islamic State of Iraq, and was sending money and fighters to the international al Qaeda movement even as it was supplied with foreign suicide bombers and leaders by that movement. The boasts of Osama bin Laden that his movement had defeated the Soviet Union were silly–al Qaeda did not exist when the Soviet Union fell–but they were still a powerful recruiting tool. How much more powerful a tool would have been the actual defeat of the United States, the last remaining superpower, at the hands of Al Qaeda In Iraq? How much more dangerous would have been a terrorist movement with bases in an oil-rich Arab country at the heart of al Qaeda’s mythical “Caliphate” than al Qaeda was when based in barren, poverty-stricken Afghanistan, a country where Arabs are seen as untrustworthy outsiders? Instead, Al Qaeda In Iraq today is broken.

Finally, what is Clinton’s response to our success, not only in turning the tables on al Qaeda, but also in reducing violence in the Baghdad area where, according to Kagan, terrorists operations are down 59 percent, car bomb deaths down 81 percent, and casualties from enemy attacks down 77 percent? Her response is to claim she doesn’t believe the good news.
That’s not very grown-up.

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