Fighting Words

Year of the Rat

Hillary Clinton scurries away from her old line on Iraq.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

A hardened veteran of the British House of Commons once put it to me like this. “You can rat,” he said. “Anybody can rat once. But it’s very hard to re- rat.” Ah, how slowly one learns to appreciate the fine art and science of repositioning. Two excellent examples of its exquisite difficulty have been on offer in the past week. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been, as people say, “distancing” himself from some of the “perceived” implications of his Mormon faith, while remaining a loyal Mormon. And Sen. Hillary Clinton has been striving to dissociate herself from her Iraq vote of October 2002, without actually going so far as to repudiate it.

Of the two “straddles,” Gov. Romney’s is probably the least painful and awkward. He has skillfully joked his way past the old polygamy canard, first by pointing out that he is rare in the field in having (and having had) only one wife, and second by wisecracking that marriage should be between “a man and a woman—and a woman, and a woman.” (Clever of him to get in first with that one.) On the much more important question of whether the Mormon “prophet” has more authority than the U.S. Constitution, he has finessed the issue by speaking of Abraham Lincoln’s “political religion,” without explicitly saying that his church’s spiritual leader can or should be overruled. If he were actually to say the latter, which I wish and believe that he should, he would in effect no longer be a Mormon. Fortunately for him, most Americans will not demand of someone that they actually abandon their religious allegiance in order to run for office.

Sen. Clinton can take no such refuge. She faces an activist base that essentially believes that you cannot really be a Democrat without being solidly anti-war. As the author of some of the tougher and better-argued speeches in favor of regime change in Iraq, she now faces repeated demands that she pass this test of correctness—and pass it by denouncing her own recent positions. It will be difficult if not impossible for her to make this full act of contrition. This is not just because such a full-scale grovel would make her look flaky and pandering—she can stand a little of that, as her absurd position in favor of the flag-burning amendment showed us—but because what she said in the first place was so definite and unambiguous.

On her campaign visit to New Hampshire this weekend, she was asked by an audience member to describe her 2002 vote as a mistake “right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance.” Until “we hear you say that,” the questioner went on, “we’re not going to hear all these other great things you’ve said.” Not for the first time, she declined to oblige. Instead, she took refuge in the softer claim that she couldn’t know then what she knew now, and in the following rather bizarre view of the Bush administration’s policy:

From almost the first day they got into office, they were trying to figure out how to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I’m not a psychiatrist; I don’t know all of the reasons behind their concern, some might say their obsession.

If she continues in this vein, then someone is going to remind her of how truly agonizing an effort to ride two horses can be. The record is very plain and easy to look up. Here is what she said in her crucial speech of October 2002:

In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

Notice what this does not say. It does not say that she agrees with the Bush administration on those two key points. Rather, it states these two claims in her own voice and on her own authority. A man like John Edwards can back away from his own 2002 vote easily enough by suggesting that he was deceived by Republican propaganda, but he was barely in politics before 2000. Sen. Clinton, however, was not just in politics. She was in the White House. That’s why she had to speak of “the four years” that had elapsed since the relationship between the United States and Iraq went critical once more. As the preceding paragraph of her speech said:

In 1998, the United States also changed its underlying policy toward Iraq from containment to regime change and began to examine options to effect such a change.

Indeed, it was on the initiative of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, both of whom delivered extremely tough speeches warning of another round of confrontation with Saddam Hussein, that the Senate passed the Iraq Liberation Act that year, making it U.S. policy to remove the Baathists from power. It was the Clinton administration that bombed Sudan, claiming that a factory outside Khartoum represented a chemical-weapons link between Saddam and Osama Bin Laden. And, as Sen. Clinton reminded us in the very same speech, it was “President Clinton, with the British and others, [who] ordered an intensive four-day air assault, Operation Desert Fox, on known and suspected weapons of mass destruction sites and other military targets” in Iraq. On its own, this is enough to make childish nonsense of her insinuation that an “obsession” with Saddam took root only after the Bush-Cheney victory in 2000.

After speaking to the U.N. General Assembly meeting of 2006, President Jalal Talabani of Iraq found himself in a room with President Bush and former President Clinton. He embraced them both. “Thank you,” he said to Clinton, “for signing the law that called for the liberation of Iraq. And thank you, Mr. Bush, for being the one to implement it.” To rat on this would be one thing if you were, say, a Dennis Kucinich fan who had opposed all engagement with Iraq from the beginning. But for Sen. Clinton to do so would be a bit more than just re-ratting. It would be more like ratting pure and simple.

At stake, then, is not just the credibility of an ambitious New York senator who wants to be the next President Clinton. At stake, rather, is the integrity of the last President Clinton and of those in his administration who concluded that coexistence with Saddam Hussein was neither desirable nor possible. If the subject was less important, it might be amusing to watch Hillary Clinton trying to “triangulate” her way out of this and find a way of impugning the Bush policy that did not also impugn her husband’s own consistent strategy. But the thing cannot be done and can’t really even be attempted without raising the suspicion that a major candidate for the office of the presidency is, on the main issue of the day, not just highly unprincipled but also completely unserious.