The Great Debate: Hillary vs. Hillary

Posted: Jun 06, 2007 12:01 AM
The Great Debate: Hillary vs. Hillary

Contemporary candidates may draw scornful fire for their embarrassing public flip-flops but Hillary Clinton’s outright contradictions on the Iraq War represent a far more shameful and serious problem.

A so-called flip-flop reflects a change of mind and, if you’ve shifted position in a more liberal direction (like Al Gore and Dick Gephardt going from anti-abortion to pro-choice on abortion), then the mainstream press will even hail your switch as evidence of “growth.”

A contradiction, on the other hand, indicates confusion rather than change; a wretched failure to take a clear position rather than the adoption of an altered position; and an effort to pander to the public by covering both sides of a given issue rather than shifting decisively from one point of view to the other.

Applying this important distinction to the current Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney most certainly flip-flopped on abortion --- dropping his self-described “pro-choice” position of 1994, and declaring himself outspokenly “pro-life” some two years ago. By the same token, John Edwards dramatically flip-flopped on the war, now regretting his vote nearly five years ago to authorize military action in Iraq and currently favoring a quick cut-off of funding.

Hillary Clinton on the other hand hasn’t so much changed her position on Iraq as she’s managed to muddy it, striking directly contradictory poses depending on her audience or, perhaps, her mood.

On the one hand, her promise to end the war has become a staple of her speeches on the stump. She regularly promises to “bring the troops home” – a ringing declaration that almost always wins applause. At the Democratic debate in New Hampshire on June 4th, Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked her to identify her “top priority in the first 100 days” of her new administration.

“Well, if President Bush has not ended the war in Iraq, to bring our troops home,” she answered without hesitation. “That would be the very first thing I would do.”

Of course, the audience cheered at her clarity and determination. But how would they have reacted to a New York Times front page headline from less than two months earlier, proclaiming: “CLINTON SAYS SOME G.I.’S IN IRAQ WOULD REMAIN IF SHE TOOK OFFICE.”

In their March 15th description of a half-hour interview in Clinton’s Senate office, Michael R. Gordon and Patrick Healy reported that “Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton foresees a ‘remaining military as well as political mission’ in Iraq, and says that if elected president, she would keep a reduced military force there to fight Al Qaeda, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly support the Iraqi military.”

The New York Senator sounded suspiciously like President Bush in declaring that US security would be seriously jeopardized if parts of Iraq turned into a failed state “that serves as a petri dish for insurgents and Al Qaeda. It is right in the heart of the oil region. It is directly in opposition to our interests, to the interests of regimes, to Israel’s interests…. Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq.” Senator Clinton, according to the reporters, “declined to estimate the number of American troops she would keep in Iraq, saying she would draw on the advice of military officers.”

But she left little doubt in her interview that, very much like President Bush, she viewed a long-term US presence in Iraq indispensable, visualizing a continued force level sufficient “for our antiterrorism mission, for our northern support mission, for our ability to respond to the Iranians, and to continue to provide support, if called upon, for the Iraqis.”

In other words, when talking seriously to serious reporters about the situation in Iraq, she forgot all about her endlessly repeated slogan about “bringing the troops home,” and similarly dispensed with another popular line that turns up in nearly every Iowa or New Hampshire appearance: “If we in Congress don’t end this war before January 2009,” she unequivocally pledges, “as president, I will.”

Does providing enough troops to “continue to provide support, if called upon, for the Iraqis” honestly amount to “ending this war”?

Dr. Noah Feldman, law professor at NYU and Harvard, provides a sobering perspective on the Clinton contradictions. In an April 8th article in the New York Times Magazine, he notes that Democrats in both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly supported maintaining enough “forces in Iraq for the purpose of fighting terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” – directly echoing Senator Clinton’s line.

But Feldman, who helped the Iraqis draft the constitution that provided the basis for the current government, observes that “the ‘fight al Qaeda’ policy cannot work the way it is being promoted. It is not easy to attack Al Qaeda without taking on the larger Sunni insurgency….To be accomplished successfully and without unnecessarily endangering soldiers in the line of fire, the policy would require roughly as many troops in Iraq as we have now. The result would probably look a lot like the Bush policy. And it could take years to show success.”

Of course, the mainstream press prefers not to focus on the surprisingly close resemblance between the unpopular Bush approach and the vague alternatives occasionally suggested by campaigning Democrats. Senator Barack Obama has also declared that if elected president he “might” keep a “small number of troops” (whatever that means) in strategic positions in Iraq.

In the case of Senator Clinton, there’s such an obvious contradiction between her “bring the troops home” rhetoric and her simultaneous promises to keep substantial forces in-country as “an essential stabilizing element,” that the general failure to hold her to account represents a stunning demonstration of journalistic malfeasance.

Her apologists might claim that when she says “bring the troops home” she actually means “some troops,” not “all troops.” But this bears a close enough echo of long-ago debates about “what the meaning of the word is, is” to make the public, or any Clinton, feel queasy.

The simple truth remains inescapable:

One Hillary says she’ll “end the war” and “bring the troops home.”

The other Hillary says she’ll keep a powerful, potent presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

And one of these two women is, without question, shamelessly lying.