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Iraq: The issue that Hillary Clinton campaigns can’t shake

Hillary Clinton gets a tour through barracks of the 2nd battalion, 2nd Airborne Division in Baghdad in November 2003. (Dusan Vranic/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the advantages that President Obama had in the 2008 election was that he was a pretty blank political slate. This was pitched by Republicans as a problem -- a lack of experience that demonstrated Obama's lack of readiness for the job -- but it also meant that he wasn't burdened by decisions he'd made that were suddenly unpopular.

Hillary Clinton has the opposite problem -- two elections in a row. Her lengthy track record in politics has meant answering difficult questions on controversial topics over and over. In the 2008 presidential race, the New York senator's Iraq vote followed her uncomfortably through the primaries. And now, if the former secretary of state runs in 2016, the decisions on Iraq made by the president she served will certainly do the same.

I know, I know, the "What does X mean to Hillary Clinton in 2016?" thing is exhausting. It is exhausting! But on the other hand: Iraq.

Iraq is the focus of one of the most pained reversals described in Clinton's new book, "Hard Choices" — a book that was clearly meant, in part, to serve as the weighty document explaining how her service at the State Department bolstered a potential presidential candidacy. Her error is heavily qualified: "When I voted to authorize force in 2002, I said that it was 'probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make.' 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, she continues, "I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."

And on the troop surge in Iraq, which she opposed, there's this: "I doubted that was the right decision at that time. After years of blown calls and missed opportunities, there were questions about the ability of the Bush Administration to manage a major escalation." (In his memoir, former Defense secretary Robert Gates said that he heard Clinton tell Obama she opposed the surge for political reasons.) As it turned out, the surge was successful in quelling violence in Iraq.

While Clinton was working with Obama after his election, Iraq became something of a success story. In 2010, with Clinton leading the State Department, Obama declared combat operations in Iraq over. The next year, the war itself was declared over.

Clinton's book details her deliberations on a number of key international issues, often with the specter of the Iraq failure in the background as a cautionary tale. In Libya: "We had learned the hard way in Iraq and elsewhere that it's one thing to remove a dictator and another altogether to help a competent and credible government take his place." Deliberations about whether to introduce a troop surge in Afghanistan prompts reflection. "Was it possible we were learning the wrong lessons from Iraq?" Stability in the country, however, offered an opportunity. Writing about her efforts to isolate Iran by cutting off its oil customers, Clinton writes that "Iraq's resurgent oil industry, long a U.S. priority, proved invaluable" in giving other countries an alternate supplier.

Hillary Clinton didn't run the Department of Defense. But she was a face of the administration on the decision to remove troops from Iraq, doing a round of TV appearances in 2011 advocating the move. In her new book, that withdrawal isn't criticized or mentioned as something she might have done differently -- even as several other things are.

That troop withdrawal has come under fire this week as the situation in Iraq deteriorates in the face of incursions from the terrorist group ISIS. On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) faulted the administration's 2011 withdrawal for leading to the current situation. There was certainly a bit of told-you-so in the senator's comments, but it foreshadows what Clinton might expect on the campaign trail: Once again, you got it wrong.

Clinton's political prospects, of course, matter little to a nation being overrun by terrorists. But you have to believe Clinton has a lingering sense of deja vu right now. In 2008, Clinton's record on Iraq was leveraged effectively by the Obama campaign in the Democratic primaries. In the book, Clinton says that "primary voters and the press were clamoring" for her to call the 2002 vote a mistake, which she didn't do. That gave Obama the opportunity to attack her, as he did during a debate in February of that year.

[T]he fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but, in fact, she was ready to give in to George Bush on day one on this critical issue. So the same person that she criticizes for having terrible judgment and we can't afford to have another one of those -- in fact, she facilitated and enabled this individual to make a decision that has been strategically damaging to the United States of America.

Three in 10 Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire said then that the war was their top concern. In Pennsylvania, it was about one in four. Those voters favored Obama. It's not solely why Clinton lost, but in an election that was a referendum on George W. Bush, it did not help.

The 2016 election isn't today, and, as Iraq already demonstrated between 2006 and 2008, two years is enough time for a lot of change in a country. It's possible that Clinton's likely presidential campaign won't have to deal with Iraq at all.

But it seems increasingly possible that, at a 2016 debate, Clinton's role in facilitating Obama's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq will be raised -- and that Clinton, again, will hear voters clamoring for her explanation.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.



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