Are We All Clear on That?

If you can figure out where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) stands on Iraq, please let me know. Just a little history, please. She voted for the war in Iraq, then turned against it, then refused to “apologize” for her vote, but “regrets” that vote nonetheless.  

To add to the confusion, she spoke before the national convention of the American Legion early this week and said in back-to-back sentences that (a) the “surge is working” but (b) unfortunately, “it comes too late” and therefore we should “withdraw,” though not “precipitously.”

This sounds a lot like Sen. John Kerry’s famous statement in 2004 that “I voted for the $90 billion before I voted against it.” It’s not unusual for politicians to want it both ways. In this case, the leading Democratic presidential candidate wants to curry favor with the dominant anti-war bloc within her party, but wants “flexibility” to move to the center yet again in the general election. I believe a candidate for president owes the public his or her candid views on this seminal issue, but with the notable exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who courageously speaks to the stakes involved in this conflict, most other candidates seem to be all over the map.

What is most odd, however, is Clinton’s statement that while the surge is working, it is coming “too late.” What, precisely, does she mean by that? How can success come too late? Even if she believes that the war was mismanaged and that we could have been successful sooner, why would she want to halt the current progress even if it comes later than hoped for?

Just think back on other such points in history. How about Abraham Lincoln in 1864 saying, “We are having success in our campaign to capture Atlanta and our tactics are working, but because of the mismanagement of the war, it is too late. Therefore, I am ordering General Sherman to withdraw from Georgia”?

Or how about Winston Churchill in 1945: “It is true that we have Germany on the run and that our troops are about to cross the Rhine. However, our nation has suffered terribly and our generals have made many mistakes. Our military success is coming too late and I have recalled our troops from the German front.”

Or Ronald Reagan in 1988: “Our efforts to isolate and undermine the Soviet Union are working. However, the Cold War has gone on long enough. We have suffered defeat in Vietnam and stalemate in Korea. Our success has come too late and I am ordering a drastic cut in our armed forces and immediate negotiations with the Soviets to restore the balance of power in the world.”

Other Democrats are using this same formulation. We must conclude, sadly, that this new line is less a serious position to address our challenges in Iraq than it is a way to square the political dilemma of rationalizing U.S. success with the realities of Democratic internal politics.