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Hillary Clinton Crafts Centrist Stance on War

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) says she supports neither a definite timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq nor an open-ended U.S. commitment.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) says she supports neither a definite timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq nor an open-ended U.S. commitment. (By Tim Roske -- Associated Press)

In Clinton's political circle, the bet is that her approach is good politics for a general election campaign, that support for the war in Iraq and the campaign against terrorism will inoculate her against Republican criticisms that the Democratic Party has been soft on defense. Neither the New York senator nor her husband has backed away from advocacy of seeing the Iraq mission through to a successful conclusion.

But the effort to put one foot squarely with those attacking Bush and another with those who say the United States cannot leave Iraq too soon has drawn criticism that she has adopted her position for reasons of political expediency, even among some Democrats who recognize the complexity of the choices facing them. "Hillary has made herself look political on this rather than principled," said Robert L. Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America's Future.

Clinton has traveled twice to Iraq and come back both times critical of the president and steadfast in her advocacy for success in defeating the insurgency there. She gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in December 2003 on Iraq and terrorism counseling patience in the military struggle there. In February, she appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) from Baghdad. But as the debate has shifted to the question of withdrawing U.S. forces, she has let others take the lead.

Her e-mail was sent out the day before Bush spoke at the Naval Academy in Annapolis -- a decision that resulted in minimal media coverage and guaranteed fewer intrusive questions from reporters about how or whether her views have changed since her initial vote for the war.

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines called the use of the e-mail a routine way Clinton communicates with her constituents. "In advance of the president's Iraq address, she wanted to reiterate her repeated criticism of how the president has used his authority and prosecuted this war," he said in an e-mail message.

Democratic strategists said Clinton can weather a rift with the left over Iraq because of her long-standing relationships with so many liberal constituencies. They also said the use of the e-mail allowed her to respond to criticism from liberals in the party without giving conservative critics television footage to exploit.

"It had the least amount of impact, but it checked the box," said one Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about Clinton's strategy. "She's still going to be able to present herself as strong on national security. In no way can she be accused of cutting and running. But she's very deftly taken care of mounting criticism from the left."

The e-mail left some questions unanswered, however. On the question of the resolution in 2002 giving Bush authority to go to war, she said in her e-mail: "Based on the information that we have today, Congress never would have been asked to give the president authority to use force against Iraq."

That is a position she has taken for more than a year, but she went a step further in her letter, suggesting she and others would vote differently today: "And if Congress had been asked, based on what we know now, we never would have agreed, given the lack of a long-term plan, paltry international support, the proven absence of weapons of mass destruction and the reallocation of troops and resources that might have been used in Afghanistan to eliminate [Osama] bin Laden and al Qaeda, and fully uproot the Taliban," she wrote.

Two Clinton advisers, who would not speak for the record about her views, rejected questions about whether she would now oppose the resolution as hypothetical, arguing that any such interpretation was reading more into the statement than was intended. "She has long said . . . 'I don't regret my vote -- I regret the way the president used the authority granted to him,' " one aide said.

Given the opposition to Murtha's plan within the party, Clinton may not differ with many Democratic politicians who are pressing for a policy that marks 2006 as a transition year in Iraq but that hedges on how long to keep troops there. But she and her aides have been reluctant to offer any clues as to how long is too long, suggesting only that her patience is less than the president's.

Clinton has taken no explicit position on the plan put forward by the liberal Center for American Progress that Dean endorsed last weekend calling for withdrawing about half of U.S. forces in 2006 and the rest by the end of 2007. Aides said her e-mail speaks for itself.

Asked how she differs with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has been Bush's strongest supporter among the Democrats, Wolfson said, "That's a briar patch I choose not to throw myself into."

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