American Enterprise Online | 5.4.05
By Alan W. Dowd
“Hawk Hillary Moves on North Korea,” blared the Drudge Report’s banner headline last Friday. The article behind the link focused on North Korea’s missiles and Sen. Hillary Clinton’s tough comments about those missiles. It wasn’t the first time someone slapped the hawk label on Sen. Clinton. After all, in 2003, transatlantic writing machine Andrew Sullivan penned a piece titled “Hillary the Hawk.” That was followed days later by William Safire’s “Hillary, Congenital Hawk.”
Worried about the prospects of another President Clinton, many conservatives argue that Sen. Clinton’s hawkish rhetoric is all about packaging and positioning for 2008, that it has nothing to do with the senator’s real convictions. They may be right, but they may be wrong.
Recall that Sen. Clinton represents New York, the very epicenter of the enemy’s war on America, the place that lost so many innocents on that Tuesday morning, the place where the ground smoldered with fire and smoke for almost three months. She walked the ruins of the World Trade Center and weathered the salvos of the anthrax blitz in the weeks that followed. If she was not a hawk before that fateful fall, one can understand why she is now. History’s pivot points have a way of changing and focusing the mind.
So it’s no surprise to me that while other leaders in her party talk about exit strategies and quagmires, Sen. Clinton has staked out a decidedly hawkish position on Iraq. For example, during a February 2005 airing of Meet the Press, she bluntly stated something that many in her party refuse to say: “It is not in America's interests for the Iraqi government, the experiment in freedom and democracy, to fail,” she asserted. She also called for “a united a front…to keep our troops safe, make sure they have everything they need and try to support this new Iraqi government.”
When asked about withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, Sen. Clinton responded without nuance or equivocation: “That would be a mistake. I don't believe we should tie our hands or the hands of the new Iraqi government.” She defended her stay-the-course position by echoing President Bush: “We don't want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some…date certain.”
This hard-line position is nothing new for Sen. Clinton: In 2001, she intoned, “I support President Bush as he leads our nation and a coalition of allies in this battle against terrorists—a battle that ranges across military, diplomatic, legal and economic lines. As the President has said, our ultimate goals will not be quickly or easily achieved. But America is determined to see this mission through. And we will prevail.”
Since then, she has hewed to the hard, hawkish line—from the war fever of 2002, through the diplomatic debacle and lightning victory of 2003, to the bloody insurgency and political minefields of 2004. In fact, in November 2003, as Howard Dean and others raised the prospect of pulling out, she argued, “We need a bigger presence.”
Through it all, she has given indications that she agrees with the notion advanced by President Bush and the most hawkish of us terror warriors that Iraq is part of the global war on terror—not a diversion from it. “We are in a two-front war,” she explained after the bombs began to fall on Saddam’s terror regime. “We are on offense in Iraq and we have to finish the job, and we have to do it as smartly and effectively with minimal loss of life as possible. But also, we need our defense here at home.”
Some dismiss all this as political posturing—a la that other famous Clinton. However, quite unlike her husband, Sen. Clinton has showed remarkable consistency and determination on a range of defense and foreign policy issues:
• As the political clearinghouse OnTheIssuses.org reminds us, she supports a muscular U.S. role in the world, even a messianic role: “Our efforts to ensure democracy and human rights cannot be considered marginal but are indeed central to our foreign policy objectives this century,” she declared in her 2000 campaign. A little over four years later, George W. Bush would be pilloried by some in Sen. Clinton’s party (and his own) for sketching out such a grandiose vision of America’s place and purpose in a post-9/11 world.
• She supported the $86-billion supplemental appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004, the one that caused so much confusion for Sen. John Kerry and his campaign.
• And she has swatted aside the lingering WMD issue with a simple rejoinder: Saddam Hussein “was seeking weapons of mass destruction, whether or not he actually had them.”
Contrast this litany with her husband’s record. President Bill Clinton dithered over Bosnia and Haiti, played kick the can with North Korea, largely averted his gaze from the approaching storm of a global jihad, and generally allowed events to define his policy.
Historian David Halberstam captures the essence of this reactive foreign policy in his book War in a Time of Peace, in which he recalls President Clinton dressing down a staffer over his administration’s inability to settle on a course in the Balkans: “We’ve got to find some kind of policy and move ahead,” President Clinton fumed. Not exactly what one would expect from the chief policymaker of the United States—and definitely not what we have come to expect from his wife or his successor.
In other words, the last name may be the same, but this appears to be a very different Clinton when it comes to national security. Perhaps that will change the closer she gets to the Oval Office. After all, it’s easier to critique or endorse a foreign policy than it is to define and execute one. (Take it from someone who does more than his share of critiquing.)
But I wouldn’t expect Sen. Clinton to shed her hawkish feathers. As her website reminds us, Sen. Clinton is the first New York Senator to serve on the Armed Services Committee. This makes her far better informed—and far more sure-footed—on issues of war and peace than most any governor, whether he hails from Arkansas or Texas, Georgia or California. And without the baggage of Vietnam on her shoulders and conscience, baggage that so many of the men from her generation still carry, she is free to defend the harsh but sound calculus of this war—that it is better for American soldiers to fight and die in places like Mosul and Mazar-e-Sharif than it is for American civilians to die in places like Manhattan.