Hillary Clinton's Formidable Strengths—and Greatest Weakness

The former senator has yet to publicly come to terms with her catastrophic decision on Iraq.

ASPEN, Colo.—In wide-ranging remarks Monday afternoon at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which The Atlantic co-hosts, Hillary Rodham Clinton showed an impressive grasp of issues as varied as health care, Supreme Court jurisprudence, and international diplomacy. One long anecdote concerned a high-stakes negotiation with the Chinese government over a dissident who wanted to defect to the United States. She spoke with ease, depth, and sophistication about the trade-offs the situation presented, as fine an example as could be imagined about the theme of her new book: Hard ChoicesClinton excels in an interview setting, where she can draw on varied experiences in two terms as an uncommonly engaged first lady, eight years as a U.S. senator, and a stint as secretary of state. The presumption that she'll run for president in 2016 is based in part on the correct judgment that her experience alone would make her a formidable candidate, whether one agrees or disagrees with her policy pronouncements, party or ideology.

There is, however, one part of her record that is strikingly weak, and wrongheaded even by her own admission: her support for the Iraq War, a catastrophe that caused great harm to America. 

This error in judgment would be less worrisome in a presumptive presidential candidate if she seemed to have learned foreign-policy lessons from it. But Clinton's remarks on Monday provide the latest evidence that she remains prone to military interventions of choice, even when the likely outcome of intervening is unclear.

On Iraq, she told the audience, "I really believe that I made the best choice I could at the time given what I thought would ensue if we passed the authorization." It's hard to say if Clinton was capable of making a better choice. But lots of Americans did make a better choice. And it is clear that Clinton herself had access to information that called the competence and trustworthiness of the Bush administration, the existence of WMDs, and the possibility of a successful occupation into question. So it is worrisome that she continues to insist that she made the best choice that she could at the time, especially given the way that she speaks about American intervention in Syria today.

Syria presents "a wicked problem," she said. And she sensibly acknowledged that such problems are inevitably addressed by "imperfect people making decisions based on imperfect information."

In hopes of solving the problem, she explained, she got together at her house one Saturday with David Petraeus "to figure out how we could vet the moderates." She favored arming them, she explained, out of a belief that "if the moderates were quickly diminished and defeated, there would be a vacuum opening up for extreme groups."

What would happen if a subset of anti-government fighters were armed? "There was no guarantee that we were right," Clinton said. "We were making what we thought of as a very careful calculation of the odds ... There was no clear line where, if you do what we say this is what will follow." Shouldn't more confidence be required to intervene?

It would be striking that uncertainty didn't cause Clinton to err on the side of not intervening, save for the fact that it's hard to think of any instance where humility caused her to take a dovish position. This suggests that as president, she would likely lean toward hawkish positions.

What would I have her say instead?

The Iraq War taught me my own limits, and the limits of all foreign-policy decision-makers, to accurately foresee the future. Even after studying decisions about war and peace from inside the White House during my husband's two terms, I didn't even come close to correctly forecasting the Iraq War. I underestimated the costs of the war in Iraq. I overestimated the benefits. I cannot promise that will be the last mistake that I'll make, but I've learned from it. I'll never make the same mistake. I've learned that a war of choice gone wrong does more damage to the United States than any other mistaken policy. So while the United States may well be forced to wage a war of necessity  in the future, whether to defend the nation after an attack or to prevent an imminent one, I'll never again favor a war if choice.

If the consequences of foreign intervention are so unclear that experts are deeply divided, I will err on the side of nonintervention after that wise physicians' guidepost: "First do no harm." There are a lot of very smart people working at the highest levels of the U.S. government. So in a country like Syria, it's tempting to imagine that we can funnel weapons to the particular rebels that are most aligned with the values and interests of the United States. It's tempting to think that we can know the consequences and the possible unintended consequences of intervening in Syria. But Iraq taught me that of course we can't.