Except for Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the Republican frontrunners who solidly back President Bush, the candidates for president enjoy the luxury of knowing that whatever they propose to do about the war will not be proved wrong before the primaries. Bush will not be implementing and thus invalidating any of their ideas.
It is safety that invites demagoguery but it is also a refuge for the timid. That is the peril that confronts Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner. She thinks that the country is in a zone where she can play it safe on Iraq, and that is where she has always seemed most comfortable. It was the counsel she usually gave her husband.
For nearly four and a half years since she voted to authorize the president to invade Iraq and four since she seemed to give her final blessing to the invasion, Sen. Clinton has carefully calibrated her position on the war to shifting public opinion about it. She grafts her position a safe distance back from the forward edge of national opinion.
In 2004 she said the administration was bungling the war. Since public support for the war effort collapsed last year and a big majority of Americans came around to the view that making war in Iraq was misguided and a catastrophe, she has moved gingerly in that direction by saying that had she been president she would not have gone to war when Bush did. But unlike John Edwards she has steadfastly refused to renounce her vote in 2002. She says she made the right vote then based on her knowledge.
She does not support any strategy except vaguely the scores of small and vague steps suggested by the Iraq Study Group for gradually shifting the status quo and a six-month deadline for the Iraqi government to stop sectarian fighting. She is not for the quick withdrawal that Rep. John Murtha proposes or even a vague timetable on American troops. But last week she made her boldest pronouncement, that if Congress does not force an end to the war before she becomes president in January 2009 she would do it. Exactly how soon she would do it she doesn’t say. Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam and the war ended after Congress withdrew funding.
I may be wrong about this, but the evidence seems to be that the great hunger of American voters in 2007 is not for caginess. It is for wisdom and the courage to utter it. Like no time in history, unless it was the Great Depression, people have glimpsed the consequences of gross incompetence and rampant misjudgment by their leaders at home and abroad.
Clinton is the person to beat on the Democratic side and there is a great yearning for her to succeed because we all have the impression that she is uncommonly smart and tough. But there also is a nervousness about her, a worry that she is more artful than principled, that she is more a temporizer than a statesman. Her craftily executed positions on the war and her vagueness on issues like national health insurance feed that anxiety.
The war is the defining issue of the campaign. In the Democratic primaries, unless Bush executes a miracle, the candidate who will win is the one who is the most convincing tailor of peace. Remember how long-shot George McGovern overtook the front-running but temporizing Edmund Muskie in similar conditions in 1972.
Clinton can yet be the bold leader, but her old positions are a terrible handicap. She pleaded urgently for passage of the congressional resolution authorizing the president to wage war although it was couched as a way to get the United Nations more involved and, as she continually points out, it used the phrase “as a last resort.” But she also said that it was “undeniable” that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear weapons program and that Saddam Hussein was deeply involved in aiding and giving sanctuary to al Qaeda. She could not really have believed that. The facts at the time were that all the extant evidence, that supplied by United Nations inspectors and our own chief inspector during her White House sojourn, was that no weapons programs remained in Iraq and that it was unlikely that Saddam Hussein would be giving succor to Osama bin Laden, who considered him to be the biggest enemy in the Muslim world. And we lately learned that it was the prevailing view inside the intelligence community.
When President Bush ordered UN inspectors out of Iraq in March 2003 so that the attack could begin, Clinton still seemed to be supportive, although she now says it was a mistake not to let inspectors finish the job. She told a peace group in New York days before the invasion that military force was the only thing that would disarm Iraq and that we could not depend on the UN to help.
That was the pivotal test of statesmanship in our time and few passed it. We should not limit the field to those who did because it was a time of uncommon confusion when a no vote cast a person as fearful and unpatriotic. But we ought to expect that those who did not pass it demonstrate a resolve that wisdom and courage will not fail them again.