The Slatest

Twelve Years Later, Hillary Clinton Is Still Defending Her Iraq Vote

The last time Hillary Clinton ran for president, she lost in no small part because of her 2003 vote authorizing the Bush administration’s use of military force in Iraq. The vote provided a stark contrast with her rival Barack Obama, who could point to his early and vociferous opposition to what he called a “dumb war.”

Clinton might have hoped that 12 years after that vote and seven years after she became Obama’s secretary of state, with a whole new set of foreign policy crises on the table, she would no longer have to answer questions about that vote, but no such luck.

In response to rival Lincoln Chafee suggesting that the Iraq vote is reason to question her judgment, Clinton replied, “Well, I recall very well—being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then-Senator Obama debating this very issue. After the election he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room going over some very difficult issues.”

The discussion of the vote was probably inevitable given the other candidates on the stage. As my colleague Josh Voorhees recently put it, long-shot candidate Chafee, who was the only Republican senator to vote against the war back in 2003, has emerged as “Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war vote in human form.”

Iraq was also brought up by Bernie Sanders, the embodiment of the party’s anti-war left, who called the Iraq invasion “the worst foreign policy drummed up in the history of this country,” and Jim Webb, who opposed the war in which his son fought.

Clinton’s Iraq vote is her original sign in the eyes of the liberal Democrats flocking to Sanders’ candidacy. It’s also a reminder that Clinton is far more hawkish than the current president. Her interventionism didn’t end after 2003: She pushed for U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011 and supported arming Syria’s rebels years before the administration reluctantly signed on.

More recently, she’s supported establishing a no-fly zone in Syria in contrast to Obama. I’ve been wondering if and when Clinton would take the opportunity to draw out her differences with Obama on Syria, something moderator Anderson Cooper was clearly trying to encourage in Tuesday night’s debate. But Clinton glossed those differences in a confusing answer that made it sound as if the president agrees with her on working to “provide safe zones” in Syria.

Clinton was clearly hoping to convince skeptical Democratic voters that she is no more hawkish than the current occupant of the White House. That might have been easier if the ghosts of 2003 didn’t keep returning. 

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic primary.