By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) offered her harshest assessment to date of President Bush's Iraq war strategy yesterday, continuing her steady evolution from one of the war's staunchest supporters to one of the administration's most prominent critics.
Clinton's stepped-up criticism came as she nears an announcement of her plans for a likely 2008 presidential campaign and during a period of increased antiwar activity in the Democratic Party aimed at blocking Bush's proposal to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.
Her long support for the war and past reluctance to break more significantly with the administration have left her at odds with many liberal activists, who will play an influential role in the Democratic nomination battle. Yesterday, she stopped short of embracing a timetable for withdrawing troops from the conflict, an idea many activists support.
Just returned from a weekend visit to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Clinton said Bush's new proposal threatens the missions in Iraq, where she said more troops are not the answer, and in Afghanistan, where she said additional troops are badly needed. "The president's team is pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq as it edges closer to collapse, and Afghanistan needs more of our concerted effort and attention," she said.
Clinton said that she supports a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's plan but that she would go further by introducing legislation to limit the number of U.S. forces in Iraq at their levels of Jan. 1, while establishing conditions for the Iraqi government that, if not met, would result in cuts in funding for Iraqi security forces.
More significant, she said the legislation would establish conditions for the U.S. government as well, such as certifying that the Iraqi government had disarmed the sectarian militias and made constitutional changes to ensure rights for all ethnic minorities, as well as requiring participating in diplomatic activities with Iraq's neighbors.
If those conditions are not met, the legislation would require a congressional resolution authorizing the mission in Iraq. That could take away from the administration the authority that Congress granted in October 2002 that led to the invasion and that was supported by many Democrats, including Clinton.
That resolution haunted her politically as public support for the war began to erode, particularly among Democrats. As other Democrats recanted their support for the resolution -- including Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- she resisted.
That put her on a twisting path that moved her slowly away from the vote and that finally led her a month ago to say that, knowing what she knows now, she would not have voted for the resolution. But unlike Edwards, who is an announced candidate for president, and Kerry, who may run, she has not apologized for that decision.
Clinton sought high-profile forums yesterday to deliver her gloomy assessment of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and to rail against an administration that she said has been unwilling to embrace the kind of change in strategy that could improve the situation.
She appeared on morning television programs, did an interview with National Public Radio and spoke at a joint news conference with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), who traveled with her to the region. The conference drew an overflow crowd of reporters to the Senate Radio-TV gallery in the Capitol.
Her appearances shifted some of the spotlight away from Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who formed his presidential exploratory committee on Tuesday to enormous media attention.
Clinton was particularly harsh in her critique of the Iraqi government. She met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over the weekend and is pessimistic that he will do what is necessary to bring order to Baghdad. "The Iraqi government is not committed to taking the steps both militarily and politically that would help them to gain control over Baghdad and other places in the country," she said on NBC's "Today Show."
The Iraq Study Group, chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), recently proposed removing virtually all combat forces from Iraq by early next year. Clinton praised the report when it was issued late last year, saying, "I hope the White House takes the recommendations seriously."
Yesterday she said she does not agree with the group's proposed timetable for troop withdrawal. "I don't think you can pull out one of their recommendations and just look at that in isolation," she said. "I think the Iraq Study Group gave us a very good blueprint for what needs to be done in Iraq, but you have to look at it comprehensively."
Clinton drew responses yesterday from the White House and her party's liberal wing. White House press secretary Tony Snow called the proposal to limit U.S. forces "a pretty extreme move" that would tie the president's hands during a time of war. Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org, which has been pushing to block the new troop deployments, challenged Clinton to follow through. "A key test is how any senator puts words into action," he said in a statement.