Why Clinton's Iraq Apology Still Isn't Enough

On Wednesday, the Democratic nominee stressed the importance of learning from her vote for the war. But she won't say what that means.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

For well over a decade, Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution has been used to undermine her political ambitions. She entered the 2008 Democratic presidential race as the heavily favored candidate, only to have her 2002 Senate vote, if not outright disqualify her in the eyes of voters, at least breathe oxygen into then-Senator Barack Obama’s outsider campaign. In the most recent Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders relentlessly attacked Clinton for her lack of “judgment” when it came to what he characterized as the most important foreign-policy decision of a generation. In her defense, Clinton chided Sanders for conflating policy disagreements with poor judgment, while correctly arguing that her 2002 vote was more complex than her critics acknowledge.

But Clinton also did something that only recently became part of her explanation for her Iraq War vote: She apologized. “I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book, I have talked about it in the past,” Clinton said at a campaign stop in Iowa last year. She repeated the sentiment at a town-hall forum on Wednesday, telling NBC’s Matt Lauer: “I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake. And I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake.” Her explanations of the vote on the campaign trail tend to be variations on her first such mea culpa, which appeared in her 2014 book Hard Choices:

[M]any Senators came to wish they had voted against the resolution. I was one of them. As the war dragged on, with every letter I sent to a family in New York who had lost a son or daughter, a father or mother, my mistake become more painful. I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.

But Clinton has never explicitly said what, exactly, she did wrong. From Clinton herself, there has been a demand for nuance in discussing her vote, a clarification of her intentions, and plenty of blame heaped on the Bush administration. But without a clear explanation of what her mistake was and how she plans to avoid repeating it, what does an apology actually mean?

Clinton is certainly right when she accuses her critics of lacking nuance on the issue. Back in February, Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote that Clinton voted in favor of a resolution to use force in Iraq in the naive hope that it “would prod Saddam Hussein into readmitting U.N. inspectors, so they could continue their mission of verifying whether or not he had destroyed his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons sites.” Clinton, then, was counterintuitively voting to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq only as a diplomatic tool to peacefully force Saddam’s hand. According to this narrative, the real problem was Bush going back on his word and starting a war before the inspectors had time to finish their job.

But there’s even more nuance to the vote than Clinton herself admits. As the resolution came to the Senate floor, Saddam Hussein had already agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to return to Iraq; a deal with the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Committee would be formalized within weeks of the vote. And as Stephen Zunes pointed out, the U.N. inspection agreement would have been settled earlier, had the United States “not repeatedly postponed a U.N. Security Council resolution in the hopes of inserting language that would have allowed Washington to unilaterally interpret the level of compliance.” Furthermore, if Clinton had truly been prioritizing a diplomatic resolution over a rush to war, then why did she vote against the Levin Amendment, which would have made it legally and politically impossible for Bush to bypass the inspection process before responding militarily?

And then there’s the matter of the 92-page classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program and the 5-page declassified version, which Bush gave to the Senate for review. The shorter version declared the intelligence community’s “high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs.” But as Peter Beinart wrote in 2014, the classified version of the report offered far more detail about the objections that the State Department and Energy Department had raised regarding claims that Saddam 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,’” Beinart wrote.

Senators Bob Graham and Patrick Leahy would both say that reading the longer report convinced them to vote against the Iraq resolution. They urged their colleagues to read it. But according to the logs where the classified report was kept, only six bothered to do so; Clinton was not among them—meaning, as Beinart wrote, that “her book’s claim that she ‘made the best decision I could with the information [she] had’ is probably untrue.”

Each of Clinton’s missteps leading up to the vote provide material for a proper apology. She could have apologized for not voting for the Levin Amendment. She could have apologized for not taking the time to read the long-version NIE. She could even have apologized for not keeping the faith with the U.N. inspectors. Instead, as the Bush administration began its invasion, Clinton, insisting against contrary evidence from weapons inspectors that Iraq continued to be “in material breach of the relevant United Nations resolutions,” called for giving Bush’s “firm leadership and decisive action” in waging “the ongoing Global War on Terrorism” America’s “unequivocal support.” If Clinton’s pre-vote rhetorical hand-wringing on the Senate floor had been over avoiding military conflict while there was still a chance for a peaceful inspection process, her trepidation seems to have vanished once the invasion began. She didn’t display the demeanor of someone mourning a failed peace, or one whose trust in her commander-in-chief had been violated.

Taking Clinton at her word that she really did believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Saddam was still harboring WMDs in 2002, it became evident pretty soon after the invasion that there was no smoking gun. So why didn’t she apologize in 2004? In 2006? How about when she ran for president in 2008? Why wait 12 years to offer an apology based on facts that hadn’t changed over the previous decade? In fact, the only major shifts between Clinton’s vote and her newfound contrition were the failure of America’s nation-building project in Iraq and the overwhelming sway of public opinion against the war. It’s a set of circumstances that leave only a few disheartening interpretations of Clinton’s behavior. In one, she shifted her own rhetoric out of expediency. In another, she agreed with the basic tenets of Bush’s nation-building program, but believed he botched the follow-through. But she doesn’t refer to either in her vague expression of regret in Hard Choices.

Like many of the issues of the Iraq War itself, what Clinton might have specifically gotten wrong hangs in the air, unexamined and unexplored. Her mea culpas never address her failures on a granular level. Her apologies never hint at a transformative lesson that fundamentally altered her ideas of organized state violence.

As Daniel Larison has pointed out, “In almost every case for the last twenty years, Clinton has reliably sided with those favoring more rather than less aggressive measures in response to foreign conflicts and crises.” This was as true during her husband’s administration (when she “urged him” to bomb Kosovo) as it was during her tenure as secretary of state and as a candidate for president. And it’s also why accusations that Clinton voted in favor of the war resolution out of political expediency, or that she was putting “politics before principle,” ring hollow. If anything, her vote suggested continuity with an interventionist foreign-policy vision that she remained faithful to long after it had lost its political currency.

The alternative explanation is less cynical but more disturbing: Clinton agreed, at least in spirit, with Bush’s doctrine of regime change and nation-building. As the international relations scholar Michael MacDonald writes in Overreach, “Accepting the [Bush] administration’s ends, [Clinton] accentuated questions of technique, strategy, and policy.” As Clinton said in a 2008 speech, “The mistakes in Iraq are … the responsibility of our … commander-in-chief. From the decision to rush to war… [t]o the failure to send enough troops and provide proper equipment for them … [t]he command decisions were rooted in politics and ideology, heedless of sound strategy and common sense.” The mistake, in other words, was not waging the war itself, but how the Bush administration conducted it.

When the question of Clinton’s culpability in Iraq came up again on Wednesday night, she emphasized the importance of learning “from our mistakes ... so that it never happens again.” She never actually said what she learned, instead pointing out that her record on Iraq was similar to her opponent’s—a dubious defense strategy. When Clinton was faced with a similar question about her “hawkishness,” she said that she views “force as a last result, not a first choice.” It’s a catchy line, but it’s rather opaque and isn’t necessarily true.

So the question remains: What is Clinton sorry for? And why?