Hillary Clinton Can’t be Trusted on Iraq
By Stephen Zunes, Foreign Policy in Focus
Clinton’s position on Iraq is almost indistinguishable from Bush’s.
Public opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans — and even a larger majority of Democrats — believe that Iraq is the most important issue of the day, that it was wrong for the United States to have invaded that country, and the United States should completely withdraw its forces in short order. Despite this, the clear front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination for president is Senator Hillary Clinton, a strident backer of the invasion who only recently and opportunistically began to criticize the war and call for a partial withdrawal of American forces.
As a result, it is important to review Senator Clinton’s past and current positions regarding the Iraq War. Indeed, despite her efforts in response to public opinion polls to come across as an opponent of the war, Hillary Clinton has proven to be one of the most hard-line Democratic senators in support of a military response to the challenges posed by Iraq. She has also been less than honest in justifying her militaristic policies, raising concerns that she might support military interventions elsewhere.
Senator Clinton’s militaristic stance on Iraq predated her support for Bush’s 2003 invasion. For example, in defending the brutal four-day U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998 — known as Operation Desert Fox — she claimed that “[T]he so-called presidential palaces … in reality were huge compounds well suited to hold weapons labs, stocks, and records which Saddam Hussein was required by UN resolution to turn over. When Saddam blocked the inspection process, the inspectors left.” In reality, as became apparent when UN inspectors returned in 2002 as well as in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation, there were no weapons labs, stocks of weapons or missing records in these presidential palaces. In addition, Saddam was still allowing for virtually all inspections to go forward at the time of the 1998 U.S. attacks. The inspectors were withdrawn for their own safety at the encouragement of President Clinton in anticipation of the imminent U.S.-led assault.
Senator Clinton also took credit for strengthening U.S. ties with Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted embezzler who played a major role in convincing key segments of the administration, Congress, the CIA, and the American public that Iraq still had proscribed weapons, weapons systems, and weapons labs. She has expressed pride that her husband’s administration changed underlying U.S. policy toward Iraq from “containment” — which had been quite successful in defending Iraq’s neighbors and protecting its Kurdish minority — to “regime change,” which has resulted in tragic warfare, chaos, dislocation, and instability.
Prior to the 2003 invasion, Clinton insisted that Iraq still had a nuclear program, despite a detailed 1998 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), subsequent studies that indicated that Iraq’s nuclear program appeared to have been completely dismantled a full decade earlier, and a 2002 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that made no mention of any reconstituted nuclear development effort. Similarly, even though Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs had been dismantled years earlier, she also insisted that Iraq had rebuilt its biological and chemical weapons stockpiles. And, even though the limited shelf life of such chemical and biological agents and the strict embargo against imports of any additional banned materials that had been in place since 1990 made it physically impossible for Iraq to have reconstituted such weapons, she insisted that “It is clear … that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.”
In the fall of 2002, Senator Clinton sought to discredit those questioning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and others who were making hyperbolic statements about Iraq’s supposed military prowess by insisting that Iraq’s possession of such weapons “are not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” Similarly, Clinton insisted that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2005 speech at the UN was “compelling” although UN officials and arms control experts roundly denounced its false claims that Iraq had reconstituted these proscribed weapons, weapons programs, and delivery systems. In addition, although top strategic analysts correctly informed her that there were no links between Saddam Hussein’s secular nationalist regime and the radical Islamist al-Qaeda, Senator Clinton insisted that Saddam “has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members.”
The Lead-Up to War
Though the 2003 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was inaccurate in a number of respects, it did challenge the notion of any operational ties between the Iraqi government and Al-Qaeda and questioned some of the more categorical claims by President Bush about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, Senator Clinton didn’t even bother to read it. She now claims that it wasn’t necessary for her to have actually read the 92-page document herself because she was briefed on the contents of the report. However, since no one on her staff was authorized to read the report, it’s unclear who could have actually briefed her.
During the floor debate over the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, Clinton was the only Democratic senator to have categorically accepted the Bush administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, Iraq’s alleged long-range missile capabilities, and alleged ties to al-Qaeda. (Some Democratic senators accepted some of those claims, but not all of them.)
In the months leading up the war, Senator Clinton chose to ignore the pleas of the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in her state and across the country against the war and similarly brushed off calls by religious leaders, scholars, community activists, and others to oppose it. Perhaps most significant was her refusal to consider the anti-war appeals by leaders of the Catholic Church and virtually every mainline Protestant denomination, which noted that it did not meet the traditional criteria in the Christian tradition for a just war. Instead, Senator Clinton embraced the arguments of the right-wing fundamentalist leadership who supported the war. This categorical rejection of the perspective of the mainstream Christian community raises concerns about her theological perspectives on issues of war and peace.
In March 2003, well after UN weapons inspectors had been allowed to return and engage in unfettered inspections and were not finding any WMDs, Senator Clinton made clear that the United States should invade that Iraq anyway. Indeed, she asserted that the only way to avoid war would be for Saddam Hussein to abide by President Bush’s ultimatum to resign as president and leave the country, in the apparent belief that the United States had the right to unilaterally make such demands of foreign leaders and to invade and occupy their countries if they refused. Said Senator Clinton, “The president gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to avoid war and the world hopes that Saddam Hussein will finally hear this ultimatum, understand the severity of those words, and act accordingly.”
When President Bush launched the invasion soon thereafter and spontaneous protests broke out across the country, Senator Clinton voted in favor of a Republican-sponsored resolution that “commends and supports the efforts and leadership of the President . . . in the conflict against Iraq.”
Aftermath of invasion
Even after the U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq and confirmed that — contrary to Senator Clinton’s initial justification for the war — Iraq did not have WMDs, WMD programs, offensive delivery systems, or ties to al-Qaeda, she defended her vote to authorize the invasion anyway. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that December, she declared, “I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote” and was one that “I stand by.”
In the face of growing doubts about American forces involved in a deepening counter-insurgency war, she urged “patience” and expressed her concern about the lack of will “to stay the course” among some Americans. “Failure is not an option” in Iraq, she insisted. “We have no option but to stay involved and committed.” Indeed, long before President Bush announced his “surge,” Senator Clinton called for the United States to send more troops.
During a trip to Iraq in February 2005, she insisted that the U.S. occupation was “functioning quite well,” although the security situation had deteriorated so badly that the four-lane divided highway on flat open terrain connecting the airport with the capital could not be secured at the time of her arrival and a helicopter had to transport her to the Green Zone. Though 55 Iraqis and one American soldier were killed during her brief visit, she insisted — in a manner remarkably similar to Vice President Cheney — that the rise in suicide bombings was evidence that the insurgency was failing.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” that same month, she argued that it “would be a mistake” to immediately withdraw U.S. troops or even simply set a timetable for withdrawal, claiming that “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.” Less than two years ago, she declared, “I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit.” And, just last year, on an appearance on ABC’s Nightline, she described how “I’ve taken a lot of heat from my friends who have said, ‘Please, just, you know, throw in the towel and say let’s get out by a date certain. I don’t think that’s responsible.” When Representative John Murtha made his first call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in November 2005, she denounced his effort, calling a withdrawal of U.S. forces “a big mistake.”
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