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Hillary the Hawk By: Andrew Sullivan
AndrewSullivan.com | Tuesday, December 09, 2003

British anti-war liberals, lefties, and conservatives have just won a new enemy. This gung-ho member of the neocon cabal, this imperialistic threat to world peace, this destroyer of multilateral alliances actually believes that president Bush is too soft for the Iraq war. The president is too swift to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis, according to this critique. He needs to pour in more troops, display more resolve, demand more from allies, and take more time to get the job done right. Who is this foe of the anti-war left? Drum roll, please. It's Hillary Clinton.

You won't have read much about the New York Senator's Iraq position in the British press, because it rather over-complicates the picture for both right and left. You can be absolutely sure that the BBC is reluctant to broadcast it. But Clinton is fast showing a skill in American politics that is both delighting her friends and alarming her enemies. Emerging from the shadow of her husband's centrist presidency, she combines all the advantages of Bill's shrewd grasp of policy and the American political center with far less of his personal fondness for sleaze, scandal, and perjury. And her game-plan for inheriting the presidency in 2008 seems to be shaping up extremely well.

Her biggest recent coup was, alas, overshadowed. Over Thanksgiving, she toured Iraq, visiting soldiers, talking to troop commanders, surveying the post-liberation scene. Pity the president's drop-by sucked up most of the media oxygen. But Hillary did not engage in angry denunications of the war, in the style of Howard Dean. She pulled a Margaret Thatcher instead. It's worth remembering she voted for the war against Saddam in the first place. And now she praised the president's visit, while criticizing him from the right. "I applaud the president. It sends a message of support," she said. "But on the other hand it isn't a substitute for a plan to increase security or to eventually create more independence for Iraqis."

What would increase security? "We have to exert all of our efforts militarily, but the outcome is not assured," Clinton opined. She opposed what she called a premature handing over of authority to the Iraqis: "I think an exit strategy, unfortunately, is being driven by our political calendar, not necessarily what's in the best interest of a long-term, stable Iraq." She called for more U.N. involvement and more allied troops, despite the fact that the Bush administration has asked for both and been denied. She was doing what successful Democrats have often done in the past - from Truman to JFK. She was outflanking a Republican on defense from the right.

It was a nifty rhetorical strategy - far shrewder than anything most of the Democratic candidates have been saying. And as the blogger Mickey Kaus observed, she can't really lose. If Bush's strategy succeeds, she can say that she favored the war and its objective of a stable democracy in Iraq. If Bush's plan fails, she can claim that she supported different tactics. Certainly she cannot be accused of selling out American troops, being weak on national security or wishy-washy in the war on terror. Maybe she's sincere. Maybe she's not. Either way, she wins.

Is she right? Who knows? The variables at play now in Iraq are highly complex and the impact of any number of potential future events - from the the capture of Saddam to another major terrorist attack in the U.S. - are virtually impossible to judge in advance. But it strikes me as far too cynical to believe that the Bush administration is attempting to pull a quick exit strategy for purely political reasons. Between next June and November, there is a long period in which the consequences of premature Iraqi sovereignty will be fully visible. Bush will be judged electorally whatever his policy. And if he really wanted to use Iraq purely for electoral purposes, why announce a deadline now - rather than unveil a surprise later, when it would have more impact on the electoral cycle? Besides, with a booming economy, and major legislative gains on hand, Bush's re-election prospects have never looked better. He doesn't need the boost his critics are accusing him of engineering.

But all of that plays into Hillary's hands as well. Almost certainly, she has no plans to run for president next year. But the more the Democratic candidates degenerate into anti-war shrillness and the further they drift away from a decent chance at beating Bush, the better situated she is to take control of the party machinery after a Bush re-election; and the easier it will be for her to run from the center in 2008. Hillary's enormous gift is that the left of the party adores her, almost regardless of what she says or does. She is so hated by the far right that the left adopts her as an ally almost reflexively. So she alone of most Democrats has the ability to campaign from the center, to pose with troops in photo-ops, to out-flank Bush on the right in the war on terror, without endangering her base. It's the reverse of Bush, who has such emotional support from the right that he can do nothing to stop abortion, spend money like Lyndon Johnson, enact the biggest new welfare state entitlement in a generation, and still be enormously popular with the party base.

She also knows that time is on her side. The longer the time there is between her presidential election campaign and her husband's administration, the better able she will be to run on her own terms and without all that cumbersome and odorous baggage. Her book was a smashing success - however bland and fake the contents. She has been diligently working as a Senator, slowly building a bond with voters and a working relationship with other Senators, two critical elements in a successful presidency. I've been a Hillary-sceptic in the past. But everyone deserves a second chance. And as the time ticks by, the likelier it seems that Hillary Clinton is going to get one.

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