The latest Gallup poll shows that Sen. Hillary Clinton's lead over Sen. Barack Obama has dropped to a mere five points. She has lost ground among liberals, independents, and—surprisingly—single young women. The poll comes during a dismal three-month stretch in which Clinton has dropped rapidly in the polls, and in which her record-breaking fund-raising operation was upstaged by Obama's surprising second-place finish. It only makes sense, then, that Senator Clinton would like to differentiate herself from Obama on substantive policy matters.
If only it were that simple. The Iraq war is the issue of greatest concern for Democratic primary and caucus voters, especially among the young people and first-time donors flocking to Obama. Clinton's recent struggles can be tied directly to her vote for war in October 2002, and to her ambivalence on the war effort as it has degenerated.
Asked how her views toward the war have evolved over the past four years, Sen. Clinton has explained that she is not sorry for voting as she did; she only regrets "the way the president used the authority." Her response sheds some light on how she would use the military as commander-in-chief, and it suggests that she has learned little from America's unfortunate experience in Iraq.
The public's discontent with the war has grown because the costs have vastly exceeded expectations. The hoped-for benefits of war with Iraq seem unlikely to materialize, and they don't seem worth the costs even if they ultimately do. And then there are the unintended consequences. With its chief rival removed, Iran is in a vastly stronger position today than it was four years ago. An unpleasant but manageable situation has been replaced by a power vacuum in Baghdad, a civil war that threatens to grow far worse, and the looming danger of a wider regional conflict.
In polls conducted in April 2003, approximately 76 percent of the public supported the war. Nearly four years later, that number has been cut in half. Based on what they know now, half of the intervention's original supporters would not have supported the war at its outset. Of the Americans who once believed our security depended on the creation of a stable, democratic, pro-American government in Iraq, most would now settle merely for a face-saving means for getting out, many without even the face-saving part: 58 percent of Americans favor a timeline for withdrawal, irrespective of the security situation on the ground.
Like most Americans, Sen. Clinton now endorses a troop withdrawal from Iraq. But does she agree that the war was a mistake from the outset?
Of course, we can never plumb the depths of Senator Clinton's conscience to know for sure. The standard, cynical view is her vote in October 2002, and her non-apology for that vote ever since, reflect little more than cold political calculation. The public in late 2002 was willing to support the war, especially if the president launched the invasion with broad international support, and Clinton reflected these sentiments. Public attitudes have since soured, and Clinton's public position has migrated accordingly.
Bad as the cynical interpretation of Clinton's stance may be, the alternative is even worse: that she hasn't apologized because she feels she has nothing to apologize for. Perhaps she still endorses the rationale behind the war. After all, she has long supported using the U.S. military to serve humanitarian aims, and it's logical to conclude that the experience in Iraq has done little to shake her faith.
President Bill Clinton was more than prepared to deploy the military and risk American lives to compel Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic to comply with U.S. and international demands in Bosnia and Kosovo, even though neither crisis threatened the lives and well-being of American citizens. President Clinton also used the threat of force to change the government in Haiti, elevated the disaster in Somalia, and launched missile strikes against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In each case, he took action with the support of most Democrats in Congress, including 2008 presidential aspirants Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd.
He also had support of the first lady. In her book Hillary's Choice, Gail Sheehy reports that Mrs. Clinton pressed the president to initiate military action in Kosovo in 1999. When Mr. Clinton worried that such action could have undesirable effects, including the prospect of even more civilian casualties, Hillary persisted, arguing that the risks of inaction were greater than the risks of action.
In her floor speech before the Iraq war vote, more than three years after she urged her husband on to act in Kosovo, Sen. Clinton pointed approvingly to his decision, and drew parallels to the Bush administration's rationale for removing Saddam from power. You can apply those same justifications to any number of unsavory regimes around the world today.
But should we? The costs of intervening in the Balkans were extraordinarily low compared to those of invading Iraq. Relying exclusively on air power, the U.S. ultimately succeeded in forcing the Serbs to desist in their campaign against the Albanian Kosovars. The bombing campaign lasted less than three months, and resulted in zero American combat fatalities. By contrast, we're now four years into Iraq, with 3,200 American troops dead, more than $400 billion spent, and no end in sight.
Has the Iraq experience shaken Sen. Clinton's faith? Have our multiple failures in Iraq instilled a newfound appreciation for the unintended consequences that inevitably flow from all wars, even those fought with the best of intentions? We simply don't know. And what do the rest of the Democrats in office think? If past history is any guide, many Democrats will renew their enthusiasm for military intervention once one of their own is back in the Oval Office.
If all Hillary has learned from the Iraq war is that the Bush administration botched the execution, if she remains convinced that the ideas that fueled the war were sound, then we could see even more foreign wars under a future President Clinton than we have under her predecessors. That can't be much comfort to Americans anxious for a new direction in U.S. foreign policy.
Christopher Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.