Paul Greenberg

General Petraeus, who wrote the book on counter-insurgency warfare, or at least edited the latest manual on it, has overseen a shift in strategy that has begun to produce a shift in results. What had been one of the most dangerous place in Iraq for Americans — Anbar province — has become one of the most secure. As even the war’s critics, or at least those susceptible to being influenced by the facts, have acknowledged. Hillary Clinton, for instance.

Still, there is no shortage of bad news out of Iraq, either, even if number of terrorist incidents is said to have declined of late.

Predictions about the war’s outcome have been about as steady this year as the stock market. Which trends will pan out, which won’t? Which are the true indicators, which fleeting and false? Whom to believe? Is there no one simple way to discern which way things are going, no single index of progress in the field or lack thereof?

Yes, there is. Watch which way Hillary Clinton is going on the war. Through it all, from her vote in favor of this war to her latest vow to end it, her statements have been a reliable reflection of how the war seemed to be going at any given time:

She voted to confirm Gen. Petraeus for his new command and fourth star when he represented a hopeful change in American strategy in Iraq. Later, when hope had ebbed, and she had to compete with the likes of Barack Obama and John Edwards in anti-war fervor — the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is well under way — she would tell Gen. Petraeus it would require a “suspension of disbelief” to credit what he — and the chief American envoy in Iraq, too — were saying about the war.

Last month, with reports from the field showing some progress, Senator Clinton voted to vaguely condemn’s attack on the general (“General Betray Us”) before declining to vote for another resolution that defended him specifically. And so she goes, like a political pendulum.

Her zigzag course would make John Kerry’s opposite but equal stands on the war four years ago look rock-solid. Remember how he voted for that $87 billion appropriation for the war before he voted against it?

You can tell how the war is going, or at least how Americans think it is going, by following Senator Clinton’s every twist and turn on the issue.

This much can be confidently predicted: Hillary Clinton will never abandon our troops in their hour of victory — any more than she’ll support the war when it looks like a losing cause. In that way, she’s been perfectly consistent.

Will the senator now from New York, and now the frontrunner in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, wind up supporting the war? It depends. On how well it seems to be going at the time. Which is why the thought of Hillary Clinton as wavering commander-in-chief of the armed forces after noon on January 20, 2008, does not assure.

One is reminded of her spouse’s stand, or rather his carefully crafted lack of one, on the first war against Saddam Hussein — the one fought over Kuwait in 1991. Bill Clinton’s stand on that war was so flexible that, whichever way it had come out, he could claim his views had been vindicated. And did. By now that political strategy has become a family tradition.

There is more involved here than the outcome of a presidential race or even of the campaigns in Anbar or Afghanistan. We now stand at the beginning of another generational struggle akin to the Cold War, which turned hot from time to time, too. Throughout that long struggle, decade after decade, there was only one sure guide that in the end saw freedom through: constancy of purpose. That is easy enough to say, it is bloody hard to maintain.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.