What's Missing From Hillary's Iraq Apology

Did Clinton make an informed decision to authorize war?
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Hillary Clinton in Baghdad, in November 2003 (Dusan Vranic/Reuters)

Among the biggest news from Hillary Clinton’s largely newsless new book is her blunt apology for voting to authorize war in Iraq. “I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,” she writes “And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong.”

This represents a change. In 2008, her advisors feared that if she called her Iraq vote a mistake, Republicans would savage her for flip-flopping, as they had done to John Kerry four years earlier. So even after John Edwards apologized for his Iraq vote, she refused to. In their book, Her Way, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. quote Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, as insisting that, “It’s important for all Democrats to keep the word ‘mistake’ firmly on the Republicans.”

Six years later, with Iraq having receded from public discussion, the flip-flop charge carries less weight. So Clinton is now apologizing prophylactically, before reporters can hector her about it again.

But the apology itself is less interesting than Clinton’s claim about why she voted to authorize war in the first place. “I had acted in good faith,” she writes. That’s likely true. During her race against Barack Obama, Clinton suffered mightily from the perception that she only supported the war because she feared looking weak on national security. As a character playing her on Saturday Night Live quipped in 2007, “I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere.”

That charge, however, is probably unfair. As Michael Crowley has reported, most of Clinton’s top foreign-policy advisors—Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, James Steinberg, William Perry, Jamie Rubin, Kenneth Pollack—were sympathetic to giving George W. Bush the authority to use force. Like them, Hillary had grown increasingly comfortable with military action during the 1990s, when Bill successfully went to war in Bosnia and Kosovo (in the latter case, without United Nations approval). And like them, she had grown increasingly militant on the subject of Saddam Hussein, whose ouster Bill had called for in 1998, and whom he had bombed for four straight days that same year in Operation Desert Fox.

Although many liberals assumed that in her heart Clinton was as dovish as them—and thus must have been insincere in her vote to authorize war—the evidence suggests that her experience during her husband’s presidency made her more hawkish. For better or worse, her behavior as secretary of state—where she championed the Afghan surge, aid to Syria’s rebels, and the war in Libya—suggests that she still is.  

But if Clinton’s claim that “I had acted in good faith” passes muster, her assertion that she “made the best decision I could with the information I had” does not. Prior to Clinton’s October 10, 2002 speech from the Senate floor explaining her Iraq vote, the Bush administration sent over two documents to the Senate for review. The first was a 92-page, classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The second was a five-page, unclassified version.

Despite a partial dissent from the State Department’s intelligence arm, the unclassified NIE declared that the intelligence community possessed “high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs.” It’s hard to know exactly what was in the longer, classified version, since even when the Bush administration released it in 2004, it whited out 78 of its 92 pages. But it went into more detail about the objections raised by the State Department, and especially the Department of Energy, to claims that Hussein had a nuclear-weapons program. According to Senator Jay Rockefeller, “the NIE changed so dramatically from its classified to its unclassified form and broke all in one direction, toward a more dangerous scenario.”

Senators Bob Graham and Patrick Leahy would later say that reading the classified version helped convince them to vote ‘no.’ And during a lunch two days before Clinton’s speech, according to Gerth and Van Natta Jr., Graham “forcefully” urged his Democratic Senate colleagues to read it.

Few did. Using logs of who entered the secure room where the classified NIE was kept, The Washington Post reported that only six senators read it. When The Hill newspaper later polled senators, 22 said they had.

Clinton has never claimed to be among them. When asked directly on Meet the Press in 2008, she sidestepped the question, declaring, “I was fully briefed by the people who wrote that.”

Would reading the classified NIE have changed Clinton’s vote? Maybe not. Even after reading the classified version, Rockefeller and Dianne Feinstein still voted to authorize war. And some intelligence analysts familiar with the classified NIE claim it was a biased, shoddy document that, like its unclassified cousin, bent over backward to prove that Iraq was pursuing WMD. Perhaps most importantly of all, Clinton’s own national-security confidantes—including Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack—believed the WMD claims. It’s hard to imagine she would have overruled them, even if the classified NIE had given her pause.

Still, Clinton’s failure to read the document means her book’s claim that she “made the best decision I could with the information I had” is probably untrue.

What makes the episode so strange is that by the time she entered the Senate, Clinton was already known for her intellectual diligence. In their biography, Gerth and Van Natta Jr. note that despite regularly getting home at 10 p.m. with a binder full of information, Clinton would still master it by breakfast the next morning. In their book on Clinton’s time in the State Department, HRC, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, make a similar point.

How could someone renowned for doing her homework have failed to do so on the most important vote of her Senate career? Clinton’s Iraq apology notwithstanding, it’s a question worth asking if she runs for president again.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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