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The Explanation Hillary Clinton Owes

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Yet another man has betrayed Hillary Clinton. This time it's George W. Bush, who not only deceived her about weapons of mass destruction but, when granted congressional authorization to go to war in Iraq, actually did so. This, apparently, came as a surprise to her, although in every hamlet and village in America, every resident who could either read or watch Fox News knew that Bush was going to take the country to war. Among other things, troops were already being dispatched.

Somehow, Bush's intentions were lost on Clinton, who then as now was a member of the United States Senate. This was the case even though she now rightly calls Bush's desire to topple Saddam Hussein an "obsession."

"From almost the first day they got into office," Clinton said last weekend in New Hampshire, the Bush administration was "trying to figure out how to get rid of Saddam Hussein." If that was the case -- and indeed it was -- then how come she now says she did not think Bush, armed with a congressional resolution, would hurry to war?

I certainly did. It was about the only thing I got right about the war, which, the record will show, I supported. If I were running for the presidency, I might call my position "a mistake" and bray about being misled. But it was really a lapse in judgment. For reasons extraneous to this particular column, I thought the war would do wonders for the Middle East and that it would last, at the most, a week or two. In this I was assured by the usual experts in and out of government. My head nodded like one of those little toy dogs in the window of the car ahead of you.

So I do not condemn Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates -- Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and John Edwards -- for voting for the war because I would have done the same. I fault them, though, for passing the blame to Bush as the guy who misled them. They all had sufficient knowledge to question the administration's arguments, and they did not do so. Not a single one of them, for instance, could possibly have believed the entirety of the administration's case or not have suspected that the reasons for war were being hyped. If they felt otherwise, they have no business running for president.

The odd man out in this debate is Barack Obama, who was not in the Senate in October 2002 when Congress passed the war resolution. He has been on record from that time as always being opposed to the war. That is to his credit. But we will never know how he might have voted since, clearly, being in the Senate and having presidential ambitions work wonders on the mind. (Indeed, once Obama got to Washington, he made only one Senate speech on Iraq.) Can it only be coincidence that all the other Democratic senators now running for president voted for the war? Can it also be a coincidence that they, in fact, voted as a majority of the American people at the time wanted? Not a single one of them bucked the zeitgeist, yet other Democratic senators -- 21 of them, in fact -- voted against the resolution. They were the ones not running for president.

The zeitgeist has reversed course. A clear majority of Americans and a preponderance of Democrats now oppose the war and have no confidence in Bush's handling of it. Is it yet another coincidence that, aside from Obama, all the Democratic presidential candidates from the Senate have also reversed course, arriving at their opinions after excruciating thought, or have they merely put their finger to the wind? In other words, have they changed their minds or merely their positions? It's hard to know. In Clinton's case, she is dead center in American public opinion, foursquare for what's popular and courageously opposed to what's not. Most Americans oppose a precipitous pullout from Iraq and -- surprise! -- so does Clinton.

Too often when a candidate throws his hat into the ring, he tosses principle out the window. Yet this is precisely what we want in a president -- principles and the courage to stick to them. Instead of Clinton saying she had been misled by Bush and his merry band of fibbers, exaggerators and hallucinators, I'd like to hear an explanation of how she thinks she went wrong and what she learned from it. I don't want to know how Bush failed her. I want to know how she failed her country.

cohenr@washpost.com

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