Hillary Rodham Clinton was a senator from New York the last time Congress was asked to authorize military action in the Middle East. Friends think her vote in 2002 to give President George W. Bush the go-ahead
to invade Iraq may have cost her the Democratic nomination — and with it the presidency — in 2008.
Today, she is a former secretary of state with another possible presidential campaign in her future. As President Obama ramps up efforts to persuade Congress to authorize military action against Syria, the question is whether this episode will become an asset or a liability if she runs again.
Clinton has not spoken publicly about the chemical weapons attack that Obama administration officials say was launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, although a Clinton aide issued a statement Tuesday saying that she is behind Obama.
“Secretary Clinton supports the president’s effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons,” the statement said.
Her 2002 Iraq vote seemed relatively safe at the time but was later fraught with political implications. One Democrat called it “the most politically significant vote case in the history of the Senate,” arguing that without it, Obama’s campaign for the White House might never have gained enough traction to defeat Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Clinton allies see little comparison between what happened then and the possible fallout for her with the debate about Syria. The 2002 debate, they argue, was ultimately about launching a full-fledged invasion of Iraq. What Obama is calling for, as he reiterated at the beginning of a meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday, is many steps short of that.
History and practical politics underscore why Clinton would embrace the president on this mission. As a member of the administration, she often took a more hawkish line than Obama in pushing for greater military and other support for the Syrian rebels — although like the president and others, she opposed putting boots on the ground as part of that effort. As one former administration official said, “While she understood the risks of a more active engagement, at the end of the day, she was persuaded that we had to weigh in more heavily on the side of the opposition.”
Her allies see no particular political downside to embracing Obama as he tries to gain support for military action. At the same time, they know she has little choice other than to back the president fully, given her past role in the administration.
What isn’t clear is how active or assertive Clinton will be in public as Congress debates whether to give Obama the authority he is requesting. She will have public appearances early next week — one at the White House unrelated to the current debate and a second at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which is part of a series of policy speeches she will be giving this fall. The Philadelphia setting could provide a forum for her to address the Syrian issue and the president’s request for congressional support to launch strikes, if she has not done so earlier.