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Hillary Clinton's Iraq Speech at GWU: An Annotated Critique

Stephen Zunes

On March 17, New York Senator and Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton gave a speech at George Washington University outlining her plans to de-escalate U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Though she called for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. combat brigades over the next several years, she continued to refuse to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the invasion, to acknowledge the illegality of the war, or to fully explain her false claims made at that time regarding Iraqs military capabilities and alleged ties to al-Qaeda. She also appears to still accept many of the Bush administrations rationales and misinterpretations of the U.S. occupation and its consequences and continues nor has she been able to offer an explanation as to what led to her dramatic shift from a supporter of the ongoing war and occupation as recently as a year and a half ago to her current more critical perspective.

Below are excerpts from her speech, followed by annotated comments: "It has been five years this week since our president took us to war in Iraq."

President George W. Bush was not solely responsible for taking the United States to war. He had accomplices, such as Hillary Clinton. Bush was only able launch the invasion as a result of being provided with the authorization to do so by a Congressional resolution. Clinton was among a minority of congressional Democrats who combined with a Republican majority provided sufficient votes to give the go-ahead for this illegal and disastrous war.

"In that time, our brave men and women in uniform have done everything we ask of them and more. They were asked to remove Saddam Hussein from power and bring him to justice and they did."

Saddam Hussein was tried by a judicial body set up under the occupation authority of a foreign government that illegally invaded his country. Indeed, U.S. government lawyers largely drafted the rules governing the tribunal. The prosecution failed to disclose key evidence to Saddams attorneys and limited the right of the defendant to confront witnesses. Three defense lawyers and a witness were assassinated. The first presiding judge resigned, and the second engaged in a series of outbursts that undermined his impartiality. Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for the postponement of the execution, observing that there were a number of concerns as to the fairness of the original trial, and there needs to be assurance that these issues have been comprehensively addressed. Amnesty International noted that the execution appeared a foregone conclusion, once the original verdict was pronounced, with the Appeals Court providing little more than a veneer of legitimacy for what was, in fact, a fundamentally flawed process. Furthermore, he was executed before his more serious war crimes had a chance for hearing, perhaps because the United States knew of his intention to bring to light how U.S. officials were aware of them at that time yet still provided his regime with the technology and raw materials that helped make the massacres possible. However guilty Saddam may be of the charges against him, he was not brought to justice.

"They were asked to give the Iraqi people the opportunity for free and fair elections and they did."

The Bush administration never considered free and fair elections a reason for sending U.S. troops for Iraq. During most of the first year of the U.S. occupation, the Bush administration strongly opposed holding direct elections. Soon after occupying the country, the United States hand-picked an Iraqi Governing Council as a consultative body which later formed the basis of the first post-Saddam sovereign government. Initially, Washington supported the installation of Ahmed Chalabi or some other compliant pro-American exile as leader of Iraq. When that plan proved unacceptable, U.S. officials tried to keep their viceroy Paul Bremer in power indefinitely. When it became clear that Iraqis and the international community would not tolerate that option either, the Bush administration pushed for a caucus system in which American appointees would choose the new government and write the constitution. Only in January 2004, when that plan prompted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to take to the streets to protest the proposed caucus system and demand a popular vote, did President Bush give in and reluctantly agree to allow direct elections to move forward, but postponed them for a full year to give the United States an opportunity to consolidate its control and re-write the countrys laws to the benefit of foreign investors and appoint the Bush administrations favored Iraqis to key regulatory commissions. When elections finally did take place, there were few international observers, there were widespread irregularities, it was boycotted in a number of key provinces, and took place under the rule of a foreign occupying power that had imposed the electoral laws and selected the electoral commission that oversaw it, thereby falling far short of most international criteria for free and fair elections.

"From the decision to rush to war without allowing the weapons inspectors to finish their work or waiting for diplomacy to run its course..."

Senator Clinton voted against an amendment which would have forced President Bush to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq and do their job and pursue more aggressive diplomacy prior to authorizing force. Instead, she supported a Republican-backed measure which allowed him to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his own choosing.

"To the failure to send enough troops and provide proper equipment for them..."

Even with proper equipment, the war was still unnecessary and illegal. And how many troops does she think would have been enough? As Vietnam showed, sending hundreds of thousands of more troops does not necessarily translate into success in a counter-insurgency war where most of the population sees you as an illegitimate foreign occupier. "To the denial of the existence of a rising insurgency and the failure to adjust the military strategy."

As Senator Clinton and others on Capitol Hill were informed by those of us familiar with Iraq, an insurgency following a U.S. invasion was a foregone conclusion and it was clear that the Bush administration had not prepared for it. Despite knowing this, she voted to authorize the invasion anyway. It is also unclear whether any adjustment in military strategy would have made a major difference anyway given the depth of popular resentment among Iraqis at their country being invaded and occupied.

"Well, here is the inescapable reality. We can have hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground for 100 years, but that will not change the fact that there is no military solution to the situation in Iraq."

It was also the inescapable reality back in 2002 that there was no military solution to the situation in Iraq, but she voted to authorize a military solution anyway.


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"Bringing our troops home safely will take a president who is ready to be Commander-in-Chief on day one, a president who knows our military and has earned their respect."

Anyone who really knows the U.S. military would have realized that it was incapable of winning a war in Iraq. As should have been evident prior to the invasion, U.S. armed forces had virtually no training as a foreign occupying force or in the tactics of urban counter-insurgency warfare, they lacked the proper equipment, and they had few Arabic translators. And, given how devastating the Iraq war has been the reputation and morale of the U.S. military, there is little respect within their ranks towards those such as Senator Clinton who enabled President Bush to send them to Iraq and lead them into this predicable debacle. "Bringing lasting stability to the region will take a president with the strength and determination, the knowledge and confidenceto rebuild our military readiness, to care for our veterans, and to redouble our efforts against al-Qaeda. If you give me the chance, I will be that president."

As predicted prior to the invasion, the over-extension of the U.S. armed forces, the enormous costs, and the high casualty rates resulting from the war has greatly harmed U.S. military readiness, the ability to care for veterans, and the struggle against al-Qaeda. Its hard to imagine how someone who supported the invasion can be trusted to be the kind of president who will be able to address those needs. "Nearly 4,000 of [our troops] have, by now, made that ultimate sacrifice. Tens of thousands more have suffered wounds both visible and invisible to their bodies, their minds, and their hearts. Their families have sacrificed, too, in empty places at the dinner table, in the struggle to raise children alone, in the wrenching reversal of parents burying children Our armed forces are stretched to near the breaking point with many of our troops on their second, third, or fourth tours of duty. Taking into consideration the long-term costs of replacing equipment and providing medical care for troops and survivors' benefits for their families, the war in Iraq could ultimately cost well over $1 trillion."

In scholarly journals, in newspaper columns, in congressional testimony, on this web site, and elsewhere, there were ample warnings of just such disastrous consequences resulting from a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless, Clinton apparently believed at the time that seizing control of that oil-rich country was worth the sacrifice. Only since public opinion polls indicated that she had no hope of winning the Democratic presidential nomination if she continued to support the war, did she start talking about the wars negative consequences.

"I have met with our soldiers and military leaders [in Iraq]. I have met with Iraqi local, regional, and national elected and other influential officials."

During her first trip to Iraq, in February 2005, she insisted that the U.S. occupation was functioning quite well, although the security situation had deteriorated so badly that the four-lane divided highway on flat open terrain connecting the airport with the capital could not be secured at the time of her arrival, requiring a helicopter to transport her to the Green Zone. Though 55 Iraqis and one American soldier were killed during her brief visit, she insisted in a manner remarkably similar to statements by Vice President Dick Cheney that the rise in suicide bombings was evidence that the insurgency was failing.

"The American people don't have to guess whether I'm ready to lead or whether I understand the realities on the ground in Iraq or whether Id be too dependent on advisers to help me determine the right way forward. I've been working day-in and day-out in the Senate to provide leadership to end this war."

In reality, until very recently, Clinton was one of the leading senators supporting the war. Even after the U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq and confirmed that contrary to Clintons initial justification for the U.S. conquest Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, active WMD programs, offensive delivery systems, or ties to al-Qaeda as she and other supporters of the war had claimed, she defended her vote to authorize the invasion anyway. When Representative John Murtha (D-PA) made his first call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in November 2005, she denounced his effort, calling a withdrawal of U.S. forces a big mistake. In 2006, when Senator John Kerry sponsored an amendment that would have required the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq in order to advance a political solution to the growing sectarian strife, she voted against it. "Now, my Democratic opponent talks a great deal about a speech he gave in 2002. He is asking us to judge him by his words, and words can be powerful, but only if the speaker translates them into action and solutions. Senator Obama holds up his original opposition to the war on the campaign trail, but he didn't start working aggressively to end the war until he started running for president. So when he had a chance to act on his speech, he chose silence instead."

Its ironic that Clinton, in a desperate effort to cover up for her support for the war and her lies to justify it, would belittle Obamas accurate and prescient understanding that invading Iraq was wrong. Back in October 2002, Obama publicly acknowledged that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors and that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. He also recognized that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. That same month in Washington, however, Clinton was insisting incorrectly that Iraq was such a dire threat to U.S. national security that it required her, in the best interests of our nation, to vote to authorize the invasion.

Furthermore, Obama did a lot more than give a speech: he gave interviews, lobbied members of Congress, and made a series of other statements in which he warned of the violent sectarian and ethnic divisions which could emerge following a U.S. invasion and occupation, the risks of a long-term U.S. military commitment, and the dangerous precedent of giving a carte blanche for a pre-emptive war.

It was true that, much to the disappointment of many of his supporters, Obama did not initially take leadership in opposition to the war once he was elected to the U.S. Senate, though it is customary for freshman senators to take a back seat on foreign policy issues during the early part of their first term. Yet, by November of his first year in office, while Clinton was still backing Bush administration policy, Obama was calling for a reduction in U.S. forces. Within a year, Obama introduced legislation setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, well prior to Clinton supporting such legislation. "And out campaigning Senator Obama tells voters that as president he'd withdraw combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months, but one of his top foreign policy advisers told a different story. She told a British television reporter, and I quote, 'he will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or as a U.S. Senator.' Senator Obama has promised to bring combat troops out in 16 months, but according to his foreign policy adviser, you can't count on him to do that. In uncertain times, we cannot afford uncertain leadership."

Rather than being a sign of uncertainty on Obamas part, it show that like any responsible commander-in-chief he will have to take into account the situation on the ground, including the strategic assessments of top military commanders, before finalizing the details of his withdrawal plan. Every serious presidential candidate has acknowledged this, yet Senator Clinton who helped get us into this war while Obama was fighting to prevent it is trying to make it sound like it is he who will indefinitely extend the war while she is the one who will end it. While Obamas withdrawal plan is slower and less total than what many anti-war activists would like to see, at least he has timetable. Clinton, by contrast, has not promised to withdraw all combat brigades by any particular date. And, based on the details revealed in both candidates plans, whatever unforeseen complicating factors may emerge in Iraq over the next couple of years, it is almost certain that more American troops will be out quicker under a Barack Obama administration than a Hillary Clinton administration. "As we bring our troops and contractors home, we cannot lose sight of our strategic interests in this region. The reality is that this war has made the terrorists stronger. Well, they may not have been in Iraq before the war, they are there now, and we cannot allow Iraq to become a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorists who seek to attack us and our friends and allies. So let me be clear -- under my plan, withdrawing from Iraq will not mean retreating from fighting terrorism in Iraq. That's why I will order small, elite strike forces to engage in targeted operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq. This will protect Iraqi citizens, our allies, and our families right here at home."

Clinton did not always acknowledge the absence of terrorist operations in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion and occupation. Indeed, in order to justify her vote to authorize the invasion, she insisted that Saddam had given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members. This came despite top strategic analysts correctly informing her that there were no apparent links between Saddam Husseins secular nationalist regime and the radical Islamist al-Qaeda, despite doubts of such claims appearing in the National Intelligence Estimates made available to her, and despite a subsequent definitive report by the Department of Defense which noted that not only did no such link exist, but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based upon the evidence available at that time. Now, as a direct consequence of the invasion and occupation she helped make possible, Clinton uses the very real presence of terrorist groups, including at least major faction which identifies with al-Qaeda, as an excuse to continue prosecuting the war.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs their program in Middle East Studies. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus.

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