Clinton attacks put focus on Iraq record

Her charges on Obama spur a look at both

Email|Print| Text size + By Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / January 17, 2008

By turning her fire on rival Barack Obama's record opposing the Iraq war, Hillary Clinton has made a relatively strong case that after Obama's early, fervent opposition to the war, he was not an aggressive opponent of the administration's policy in Iraq during his first two years in the US Senate.

But as she returns the spotlight to the Iraq war, Clinton has glossed over aspects of her own Iraq record, in which she voted to authorize the war and did not support alternative legislation that put more emphasis on international diplomacy.

Clinton doesn't have the option of asserting that she had more foresight on the war than Obama, since she now views the invasion as a mistake. So her attack is aimed less at Obama's stance on the Iraq war itself than at using his Senate record to convince voters that he failed to follow through on his prewar rhetoric.

In her hour-long TV appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, she rattled off a litany of challenges to Obama's record on Iraq. Former President Bill Clinton made many of the same points in New Hampshire earlier this month when he called Obama's claim to the high ground on the war a "fairy tale."

Some of the Clintons' arguments are exaggerated, while others are true. A review of Obama's votes on Iraq in the Senate shows that he was not one of the most outspoken opponents of the Bush administration's Iraq policy in the Senate until he began preparing to run for president.

But Obama's position before the invasion was one of passionate opposition: In 2002, when he was an Illinois state senator, Obama addressed an antiwar rally, explaining that he was not against all wars, but, "What I am opposed to is a dumb war." He declared that invading Iraq would require an "occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."

When he ran for Senate in 2003 and 2004, he continued to oppose the war and said he would "unequivocally" vote against an additional $87 billion of war funding, which Congress was considering at the time. But after taking office in January 2005, Obama voted numerous times to support Iraq funding, to the tune of more than $300 billion.

Many of his Senate Democratic colleagues did the same, including Clinton. Obama and others have drawn a distinction between the decision that sent troops into battle in Iraq, and subsequent decisions on whether to fund their presence there adequately.

In June of 2006, Obama voted against a proposal by Senator John F. Kerry to remove most troops from Iraq within a year, calling it an "arbitrary deadline" that could "compound" previous US missteps there. He first voted against funding for the war in May 2007, after he had declared his candidacy for president, when he said "enough is enough," after Bush vetoed a timetable for withdrawal.

Obama gave his first major speech about Iraq as a member of the Senate in November 2005, 11 months into his term. He didn't introduce legislation to end the war until last January, when he was exploring a run for president.

The Obama campaign points to numerous comments the Illinois senator made in 2005 and 2006 calling for a phased withdrawal. Obama officials also sent reporters a list of remarks Clinton made in 2005 and 2006 opposing deadlines or timetables for withdrawal.

Some of Clinton's other accusations appear to have little merit. She said on "Meet the Press" that in 2004 Obama said he wasn't sure how he would have voted if he'd been in the Senate at the time of the war authorization. But she was referring to interviews Obama gave around the time of the Democratic National Convention, when he was trying to be respectful toward Kerry, the party nominee, who had voted for the war. And Obama made it clear he felt Congress failed to ask Bush enough tough questions.

"What would I have done? I don't know," Obama told the New York Times. "What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."

Clinton also pointed out that Obama's 2002 antiwar speech disappeared from his website during his Senate run, and implied that he was hiding it. But during his 2004 primary campaign, Obama did emphasize his early opposition to the war. "She has spent this campaign trying to convince people to vote for her, and unable to do that, she's resorted to trying to confuse people about Obama's record," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

At the same time, Clinton has put considerable spin on her own 2002 vote in favor of the resolution, which authorized the president to use force against Iraq. In her characterization of it on "Meet the Press," she said: "It was a vote to put inspectors back in to determine what threat Saddam Hussein did in fact pose." And she later added, "I was very strongly in favor of limiting what President Bush could do."

In a speech on the Senate floor, Clinton did indeed call on Bush at the time to "use these powers wisely and as a last resort." But, as Tim Russert pointed out Sunday, her vote was for a measure titled the "Authorization for use of military force against Iraq resolution."

She also voted against an amendment to the resolution offered by Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, which would have required Bush to seek the authorization of the United Nations Security Council to use force against Iraq if it did not provide access to weapons inspectors.

That amendment, Clinton said Sunday, gave the Security Council "a veto over American presidential power."

But in fact, it only would have required Bush to attempt to get the UN on board. If he failed to do so, the amendment promised that Congress would revisit other Iraq legislation promptly.

In making the case that her vote was meant to put pressure on Hussein rather than a vote for war, Clinton said she believed the White House would use it to press Iraq to let weapons inspectors back into the country, and cited the antiwar Republican senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, as one of its authors.

However, Hagel had been working on a different resolution that would have authorized force only to destroy Iraq's unconventional weapons. It was sidelined in favor of a broader authorization for which Clinton voted that gave a green light to "enforce all relevant United National Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

Asked about the apparent discrepancy, the Clinton campaign said Hagel also played a role in shaping the resolution that ultimately was adopted.

Globe correspondent Amy Farnsworth contributed to this report.

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