Hillary Clinton’s ‘Wicked’ Iraq Problem

National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
June 15, 2014, 3:56 p.m.

As the situ­ation in Ir­aq de­teri­or­ates with no clear solu­tion, Hil­lary Clin­ton faces the pro­spect of en­ter­ing a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign with three un­settled glob­al con­flicts on which she’ll be polit­ic­ally vul­ner­able from the right, left, or both.

That’s a di­lemma for a po­ten­tial can­did­ate who just wrote a 650-page book de­tail­ing her ac­com­plish­ments helm­ing Amer­ic­an for­eign policy, put­ting yet an­oth­er as­ter­isk on a re­cord that should be her biggest strength.

On Rus­sia, there’s Clin­ton’s mis­trans­lated and — con­ser­vat­ives say — mis­con­ceived “re­set but­ton.” On Syr­ia, her early sup­port for air strikes re­vived lib­er­al con­cern about her self-de­scribed “bi­as to­wards ac­tion,” re­call­ing her vote for the Ir­aq War in 2002 that sty­mied her last pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions. She re­cently apo­lo­gized for the vote in her new book.

Now on Ir­aq, she finds her­self in a fa­mil­i­ar and un­com­fort­able po­s­i­tion between a war-weary Demo­crat­ic Party on one side and hawk­ish Re­pub­lic­ans eager to paint her as weak on the oth­er. She’s tried to thread this needle be­fore and it didn’t work well.

“The cur­rent crisis in Ir­aq is a re­mind­er of the dangers Hil­lary Clin­ton faces with the Demo­crat­ic base,” said Steph­en Miles of the pro­gress­ive group Win without War. “Today, with the threat of mil­it­ary ac­tion once again on the table in Ir­aq, “¦ we’ll be look­ing to see if her re­cent de­nun­ci­ation of her 2002 vote for the Ir­aq War rep­res­ents a true change of heart or was simply an ef­fort to re­write his­tory in ad­vance of a 2016 run.”

At the same time, it didn’t take long after Is­lam­ist in­sur­gents made rap­id gains in Ir­aq last week for Re­pub­lic­ans to blame the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s push to with­draw Amer­ic­an troops from the coun­try.

“A policy of weak­ness and ac­com­mod­a­tion that came from the Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton team is one that’s led to very ser­i­ous and neg­at­ive res­ults,” said Mitt Rom­ney, the GOP’s 2012 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, on Fox News. “There’s al­most not a place in the world that’s bet­ter off be­cause of [Clin­ton’s] lead­er­ship in the State De­part­ment.”

It’s not fair to blame Pres­id­ent Obama or Clin­ton en­tirely for the lack of U.S. troops in Ir­aq, since Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki re­fused to sign the Status of Forces treaty needed to main­tain a mil­it­ary pres­ence. But as Amer­ica’s top dip­lo­mat dur­ing the failed ne­go­ti­ations, Clin­ton’s role is sure to be scru­tin­ized.

In an Oc­to­ber 2011 in­ter­view with CNN, the then-sec­ret­ary of State down­played the im­port­ance of keep­ing troops in Ir­aq, say­ing Amer­ic­an forces would still have plenty of ca­pa­city to deal with situ­ations that might arise. “We have a lot of pres­ence in that re­gion,” Clin­ton said. “In ad­di­tion to a very sig­ni­fic­ant dip­lo­mat­ic pres­ence in Ir­aq, which will carry much of the re­spons­ib­il­ity for deal­ing with an in­de­pend­ent sov­er­eign demo­crat­ic Ir­aq, we have bases in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.”

Some ana­lysts pre­dicted al-Ma­liki’s crack­down on the Sunni minor­ity in the coun­try would re­vive a dormant in­sur­gency, but on Thursday, speak­ing at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, Clin­ton said the in­sur­gents’ suc­cess was un­fore­see­able. “I could not have pre­dicted, however, the ex­tent to which IS­IS could be ef­fect­ive in seiz­ing cit­ies in Ir­aq and try­ing to erase bound­ar­ies to cre­ate an Is­lam­ic state. That’s why it’s a wicked prob­lem,” she said.

Voters will have to de­bate that one, to de­term­ine if it’s a sat­is­fact­ory an­swer for someone who likely wants to be com­mand­er in chief.

IS­IS’s rise in Ir­aq may have no Amer­ic­an policy solu­tion, and for Clin­ton, that makes it an equally “wicked” prob­lem polit­ic­ally. Lib­er­als like House Demo­crat­ic Lead­er Nancy Pelosi have less than zero ap­pet­ite for wad­ing back in­to the quag­mire, while only 38 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans think the Ir­aq War was worth its costs to be­gin with, ac­cord­ing to a March 2013 ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll.

On the oth­er hand, un­der pres­sure from the likes of Rom­ney and Mc­Cain, Clin­ton can ex­pect to be asked a lot about Ir­aq in com­ing days, and she’ll have to find an an­swer strong enough to fit someone who titled her mem­oir Hard Choices.

Of course, Ir­aq is an old prob­lem for Clin­ton. Head­ing in­to the 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, she tried to atone for her vote in fa­vor by be­com­ing one of the Sen­ate’s more vo­cal an­ti­war voices, op­pos­ing the surge and vot­ing to block it in a bill that didn’t gain clo­ture. Later, she said that while the in­creased troops had helped im­prove se­cur­ity tem­por­ar­ily, the surge ul­ti­mately “failed” in its broad­er goals.

In a dif­fer­ent move that now looks more pres­ci­ent, she in Au­gust of 2007 called on the Ir­aqi Par­lia­ment to re­place al-Ma­liki with “a less di­vis­ive and more uni­fy­ing fig­ure,” prompt­ing an angry re­sponse from the lead­er.

Now, her re­sponse to the situ­ation in the coun­try is de­pend­ent on the man who wiel­ded her Ir­aq policy against her six years ago. As a Demo­crat and one of Obama’s top for­eign-policy of­fi­cials, the strength of her for­eign policy re­cord — and by ex­ten­sion, her rais­on d’etre for a White House bid — rides on the suc­cess of Obama’s.

The ad­di­tion of yet an­oth­er “wicked” prob­lem to his dock­et, even one he may not bear re­spons­ib­il­ity for cre­at­ing and solv­ing, doesn’t help.

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