Ever since Hillary Clinton supported the reckless Kyl-Lieberman Iran bill, her Democratic competitors have been blasting her for her stand, and rightly so. By defining Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, a core branch of the Iranian military, as a foreign terrorist organization, the bill put the U.S. Senate on record as vindicating the Bush-Cheney line that Iranian proxies are part of a global conspiracy, linking Al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Hamas, Hezbollah, and any other enemy the administration wants to conjure up. It made a US attack on Iran just that much more possible. And Clinton's support for the bill confirmed that she has learned little from her earlier Iraq war vote.
But what none of the candidates challenging her have done, as far as I can tell, is use the most succinct and damning description of the vote's implications that's been expressed, when Senator James Webb called it "Dick Cheney's fondest pipe dream." "It could be read as tantamount to a declaration of war," Webb also concluded, and his descriptions go to the heart of the issue, with an eloquence likely to stick in the minds of the voters. But the other candidates have to publicly quote them, and so far they haven't.
Now Jim Webb's not always right, but he knows war, and has thought and written about what leads to it. He's not one to use words casually, so his judgment carries weight. When competing candidates say Hillary's made it easier for Bush and Cheney to even consider the insanity of an attack (or to encourage Israel to do so in their place), it's true and damning. But her supporters can still dismiss this as self-serving exaggeration. Quoting Webb makes her vote harder to dismiss. It goes to the key issue--that once again Hillary empowered a recklessly belligerent administration in their efforts to go to war. Now a US attack is probably less likely since the National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programs in 2003. But Clinton had no way of knowing this when she voted for Kyl-Lieberman, and Bush continues to talk confrontationally in the wake of the report. The fact that Hillary later supported a resolution saying Bush needed Congressional permission to attack is fine and good, but it only partially closes the opportunity for potential catastrophe that she'd just finished helping open.
Reports out of Clinton's campaign suggest that her support for the resolution may actually reflect less a heart-felt political judgment, than a politics of triangulation, an approach where she's driven more by policies she thinks will help her win than those necessarily the best choice for America and the world. As the New York Times reported, "Part of the reason for Mrs. Clinton's vote some of her backers say privately, is that she has already shifted from primary mode, when she needs to guard against critics from the left, to general election mode, when she must guard against critics from the right.... Mrs. Clinton is also solidifying crucial support from the pro-Israel lobby."
As Clinton's once seemingly unassailable lead seriously crumbles, her Iran vote has played a major role in the process. But those raising it as an issue have been withholding the most powerful way of telling it. They need to, in their talks, their ads, and in the arguments they ask their supporters to use. If Democrats really reflect on what it means to potentially enable "Dick Cheney's Fondest Pipe Dream," I believe they'll select a different candidate.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles