Hillary Clinton’s ‘Wicked’ Iraq Problem

National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
FUNDING RUNS OUT ON FRIDAY
Federal Agencies Prepare for Govt Shutdown
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

As Congress continues to bicker on riders to a continuing resolution, federal agencies have started working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for a government shutdown, which will occur if no continuing resolution is passed by 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. The OMB held a call with agencies on Sept. 23, one that is required one week before a possible shutdown. The government last shut down for 16 days in 2013, and multiple shutdowns have been narrowly avoided since then. It is expected that Congress will reach a deal before the clock strikes midnight, but until it does, preparations will continue.

Source:
OBAMA’S ENVIRONMENTAL LEGACY IN THE BALANCE
Obama’s Clean Power Plan Faces Courts
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Obama's Clean Power Plan, a large pillar of his efforts to leave a lasting environmental legacy, "goes before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today." The plan "imposes the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants." A number of consolidated cases finds 27 states challenging this plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in February pending decisions from lower courts. The states will argue that the government doesn't have the right to impose restrictions requiring them to shutter plans and restructure full industries.

Source:
UNCLEAR IF THIS WILL AFFECT POLLS
Instant Reaction: Clinton Won Debate
1 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

There seems to be a clear consensus forming about Monday's debate: Hillary Clinton was the winner. One focus group of undecided Pennsylvania voters, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, found 16 favored Clinton while five picked Donald Trump. In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters saw Clinton as the winner.

DIDN’T BECAUSE CHELSEA WAS IN THE ROOM
Trump Wanted to Bring Up Bill Clinton
2 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

As both candidates walked off the stage, Donald Trump lauded himself for being restrained and for not bringing up Bill Clinton. "I didn’t want to say—her husband was in the room along with her daughter, who I think is a very nice young lady—and I didn’t want to say what I was going to say about what’s been going on in their life," Trump said. Trump claims he stopped himself from hitting Bill Clinton because daughter Chelsea was in the room.

Source:
REPEATS CONTROVERSIAL CLAIM
Trump: Clinton “Doesn’t Have The Stamina” to be President
13 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

At the end of the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Donald Trump if he stands by his statement that Hillary Clinton didn't have the look of a president. Trump responded by saying Holt misquoted him, instead saying that Clinton "doesn't have the stamina." Clinton responded by saying that when Trump visits 112 countries as secretary of state, he can talk to her about stamina.

×