Michael Crowley has done a superb job explaining why Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002, but he didn't dwell at length on her current views about Iraq. These views, recently expressed in a New York Times interview, reveal an approach to Iraq that is entirely consistent with Crowley's analysis of her October 2002 vote. In spite of her support this month for a Senate resolution mandating withdrawal, Clinton is still a hawk on Iraq--and, in my opinion, is still flying blind.
Clinton's support for the Iraq war stemmed in part from her optimism about what American military power could accomplish. In Clinton's eyes, the United States ended war and ethnic cleansing and created a modicum of stability in the Balkans through bombing the Serbs into submission. George W. Bush's administration seemed to enjoy similar success in Afghanistan. This led not only neoconservatives, but also liberals like Clinton to be optimistic about what an American invasion of Iraq could accomplish. Clinton, of course, has been chastened by the Bush administration's failure in Iraq, but in sketching a strategy for the future, she remains wedded to a version of the same approach.
As she recounts in her interview, her solution to Iraq rests partly on a "very vigorous diplomatic effort on the political front and on the regional and international front." This would include "a track with Syria and a track with Iran." But the main part of the strategy would be its military dimension. While Clinton does not favor having U.S troops intervene in an Iraqi civil war, she would retain a significant force in Iraq. This force would try to "contain the extremists," "help the Kurds manage their various problems in the north," "provide logistical support, air support, training support" to the Iraqi government, and try "to prevent Iran from crossing the border and having too much influence inside of Iraq."
Clinton's idea of a residual occupying force goes well beyond that of the recent Senate resolution. The resolution provides for a "limited number" of troops after the pullout date, which would be devoted to training and to "targeted counterterrorism operations." By contrast, Clinton's force would have larger geopolitical responsibilities, including the restraint of Iranian power. Clinton says she doesn't know how many U.S. troops her plan would require, or how many military bases would be required to house them. But Michael Gordon and Patrick Healy, who conducted the interview, noted that former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim, who has developed a strikingly similar plan, estimates that 75,000 American troops would be needed to carry his plan out. That's about half of the current force stationed in Iraq.
Initially, Clinton's plan differs from what Bush is doing. While Bush is still seeking victory over Iraqi insurgents, Clinton would withdraw from urban centers and from the civil war that is raging. But in its broader objectives, Clinton's plan is not dramatically different from that of the Bush administration. The White House certainly isn't expecting to maintain 160,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, but it is planning a long-term occupation anchored in what the Pentagon has described as "enduring bases." As Spencer Ackerman has shown, it continues to construct these huge, imposing bases. Clinton's residual army, like Bush's, would not merely provide training to the Iraqis in the manner, say, that some European countries have done. The remaining force would have a larger geopolitical mission of keeping Iraq in the American orbit and away from either Al Qaeda or Iran. Their presence in bases would be reminiscent to that of the forces that the United States stationed in Cuba after 1901 or the British stationed in Iraq after 1921-- after they had abandoned colonialism for an informal imperial approach.
Unlike Bush, Clinton does emphasize diplomacy. But her military strategy undermines any prospects such regional and international talks might have. The existence of an occupying force inside Iraq will certainly make it more difficult to bring Iraq's neighbors--particularly Iran--into a comprehensive agreement that will bring stability to the region. By raising the specter of Western imperialism, it will provoke continued resistance to the United States throughout the Middle East. And like the earlier U.S. base in Saudi Arabia, the remaining bases in Iraq will provide an effective recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.
If the example of Kosovo was so important to Clinton, as Crowley shows, then she appears to have misread its lessons. The United States succeeded in Kosovo because it eschewed "regime change" and acted through NATO rather than unilaterally. If the United States had tried to install a new government in Serbia on its own, it would likely have provoked a nationalist and anti-imperial backlash similar to that in Iraq. Indeed, the United States might still be fighting there.
Similarly, if the United States wants to bring stability to Iraq and to the region, it will have to forego any hint of an imperial ambition inside Iraq . This means dismantling its military bases and allowing the Iraqis to develop their own oil industry. It will have to subordinate its military to its diplomatic policy and focus on getting Iraq's neighbors to take responsibility for stability in the region and for marginalizing Al Qaeda--an objective on which Jordan, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia should be able to agree. It's not clear if the U.S. will be able to assemble a multinational force that could carry out training and combat terrorism. But as American experience has already shown, a necessary condition of assembling such a force will be a commitment by the United States to cease playing the role of a dominant occupying power.
Many policy experts in Washington, including Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, favor this kind of approach. It enjoys adherents at most of the left-center think tanks. But it has not been embraced by Capitol Hill and the White House. Only two presidential hopefuls, retired General Wesley Clark and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, clearly support it, and neither of them are declared candidates. The leading Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, favors an even more extreme version of Bush's policy. (If Clinton is Bush lite, McCain is Bush heavy.)
Of course, some Democrats will say that Clinton does not really favor a continued occupying force in Iraq--that she is only saying these things to appear sufficiently tough on terrorism to get elected in November 2008. Crowley's account of her political development belies this dismissal of her views. And even if Clinton is only saying these things to win elections, that doesn't mean she would not act on them as president. Richard Nixon, after all, knew before the 1968 election that the United States was doomed in Vietnam, but he prolonged the war for another four years partly because he didn't want to be "the first American president to lose a war." Hillary Clinton's views on Iraq need to be taken seriously--and challenged.