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James Carroll

Questions for Hillary Clinton

THE LARGEST surprise in Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign for president, so far, is her success in establishing herself as a viable commander-in-chief.

As the Globe reported last week, polls suggest that Clinton is widely regarded as "tough enough" to protect national security. Her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee; her early vote in support of the war in Iraq, and her ongoing refusal to renounce that vote; the aggressiveness of her rhetoric after Sept. 11, 2001, including her embrace of the "war on terrorism"; her support, however ambivalent, for missile defense, and her proposals to expand the Army; even her somewhat prickly personality -- all of this combines, apparently, to create an image that nervous voters find reassuring. Given the depth of anti-female stereotyping, this is a remarkable political achievement.

As a first-time candidate for president, Bill Clinton had a toughness problem, too. Fighting off his image as a peacenik, he ran a campaign in 1992 that emphasized what he called "a new covenant for American security."

But after the victorious Gulf War and the Soviet collapse, the nation had turned its attention inward, and Clinton could aim his laser at the economy. Yet he slyly portrayed himself as more militant than George H.W. Bush. "Saddam Hussein still has his job," ran one Clinton ad, "Do you?"

The final meaning of "It's the economy, stupid" is that it was stupid to think that economic questions were more important than national security issues in the pivotal eight years of the Clinton presidency. The national security decisions that Clinton made have turned out to be more epoch-shaping than anyone imagined at the time. One needn't look back on those decisions from a moral high horse to realize how flawed they were.

Coming into power as the world's relationship to military force was being fundamentally altered by such figures as Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Óscar Arias, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, John Hume, Corazon Aquino, and Pope John Paul II, Clinton was unable to claim what should have been his natural place among them.

Instead, he squandered a golden opportunity to reshape his nation's relationship to war and peace, preserving a Cold War military ethos -- and budget -- and handing it on to George W. Bush, fully intact. Whether or not Clinton was tough enough to take on America's enemies, he turned out not to be tough enough to take on America's defenders. The great contest given him by history was with the Pentagon -- a contest for which he did not show up.

In assessing Hillary Clinton's readiness to be commander-in-chief, voters can move on from the toughness question to the far more difficult one about judgment. In that, voters have a tremendous resource, which is Clinton's own history as an intimate witness to, and even participant in, her husband's administration. What judgments does she make today about the great national security decisions that faced her husband? Take three examples:

Nuclear weapons. Bill Clinton's most fateful decision was made in 1994, in response to the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review -- a call for maintaining the nuclear status quo as a "hedge" against the possibility that Moscow would go fascist. When Clinton accepted the review, the nuclear arms reduction process died, the universally accepted goal of an ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons was abandoned, and the next round of proliferation began. The review, as one wag put it, was the insurance policy that started the fire.

NATO. The Cold War ended nonviolently only because Moscow accepted the admission of a reunited Germany into NATO. Moscow believed American assurances that NATO would move no farther east, but Clinton aggressively sponsored NATO expansion into the former Soviet sphere, dangerously isolating Russia. Today's tensions between Russia and the United States began with Clinton's NATO expansion.

Missile defense. Despite knowing the science that debunked the assertions of missile defense advocates, and that missile defense was prohibited by the ABM Treaty, Clinton kept the program alive, laying the groundwork for President Bush's deployment last year. The weaponizing of space has begun, as have arms-race responses in Russia and China. All for an unworkable fantasy.

Hillary Clinton's Senate record (as on missile defense) is ambiguous. Her experience of the 1990s could be a greater asset, but she owes voters a more forthright accounting. What did she think of her husband's fateful decisions then? What does she think of them now?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.