Clinton arives late to anti-war party

December 22, 2006|By Kathleen Parker

The coulda-shoulda-woulda chorus just added a new soprano. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she wouldn't have voted for the Iraq war if she'd known then what she knows now.

The New York Democrat was one of the last holdouts among the probable 2008 Democratic presidential candidates to embrace hindsight regarding her vote in 2002 on a resolution approving the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

It's been interesting to watch formerly pro-war leaders distance themselves, one by one, as conditions have deteriorated in Iraq. As always, timing is everything. Was the first to cut and run from the hawk's nest the smartest? Was the last one more principled?

When to declare oneself anti-war has been a trick of politics and prudence. For Senator Clinton, the call has been especially complicated. As a woman, she's worked hard to establish herself as not soft on foreign policy. She serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, held her ground on the war, and even visited the troops in Iraq.

Then came that upstart Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, anti-war purist and pretender to the throne. Seeing him idolized in New Hampshire last weekend, Mrs. Clinton finally had to tweak her stand.

Thus, this week she joined others, including former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. John Kerry, in declaring: "Obviously, if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn't have been a vote ... and I certainly wouldn't have voted that way."

But if we'd known what, precisely? That there were no weapons of mass destruction? No, if that had been the case, she might have come out sooner, as Mr. Edwards did in a Nov. 13, 2005, op-ed article for The Washington Post.

On the other hand, if Senator Clinton had backpedaled then, people might have thought she was shadowing Mr. Edwards - not a good sign for the aspiring first woman president in U.S. history. She would have to bide her time and hold her ground a while longer.

This was getting tiresome. She'd had to hold the same miserable ground, risking her party's base, in 2004 when Mr. Kerry was flip-flopping like a fish on a hot dock, saying that Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." Mr. Kerry had voted for war, same as Mrs. Clinton, but he would have done things differently than President Bush.

When the Iraq resolution came up for a vote, the U.S. Congress had more hawks than a falconers' convention. A review of statements before the invasion reveals a nearly universal lack of ambivalence.

A few dissenters seemed to know more than the rest, though they opted not to share until Iraq was coming apart. Then-Sen. Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, wrote in The Washington Post one week after Mr. Edwards that a classified report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - on which both he and Mr. Edwards served - included "vigorous dissents" about whether Iraq had WMD and whether, if they existed, Mr. Hussein would use them. On the basis of that report, Mr. Graham says, he voted against the war.

Mr. Edwards' pre-emptive mea culpa apparently shielded him from any flak sparked by Mr. Graham's revelations. Mrs. Clinton, who was not on the intelligence committee, may have known less. Or, as the wife of a former president, perhaps she knew more.

In July 2003, former President Bill Clinton told Larry King: "People can quarrel with whether we should have more troops in Afghanistan or internationalize Iraq or whatever, but it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted-for stocks of biological and chemical weapons."

There's no dishonor in not being prescient. No one can predict a war's outcome, especially not in the midst of it. But if things were going differently in Iraq today - and they might have under better management - we can be sure the woulda-coulda-shouldas would be singing a different song.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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