Clinton's Foreign Policy Balancing Act

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is taking a deliberate approach to foreign policy, her advisers say.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is taking a deliberate approach to foreign policy, her advisers say. (By Jamie Rose -- Bloomberg News)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

While preparing to give a major critique of the war in Iraq last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton read a draft of the speech and added a few lines of her own.

"I would also consider, as I have said before, leaving some forces in the Kurdish area to protect the fragile but real democracy and relative peace and security that has developed there," Clinton said in the final version of the speech.

It was a small but important caveat in an otherwise harsh speech about ending the war -- overshadowed by repeated promises to withdraw troops as quickly and responsibly as possible.

Advisers close to Clinton (D-N.Y.), who confirmed that she personally inserted the lines, said it illustrated her approach to running for president these days -- as a deliberate practitioner of foreign policy, with an eye toward the general election and the realities of governing if she becomes president.

That has been the subtext of her fights with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the past few weeks. Clinton called his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile states "irresponsible and naive" after the Democratic debate in South Carolina two weeks ago, then responded coolly to his statement last week that he would not use nuclear weapons against terrorist cells in Pakistan.

Refusing to say whether she agreed with him on the specific question, Clinton said she did not "believe any president should make blanket statements with regard to use or nonuse." Although many experts said Obama was fundamentally correct that the United States would not use nuclear force in the region, Clinton's answer seemed more attuned to a general election campaign and a future presidency.

Much has been made of Clinton's slow rhetorical shift from authorizing the war in 2002 to attacking it now. Less scrutinized have been her maneuvers along the way to try to avoid the trap that befell Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 -- being "for the war before he was against it," as his Republican rivals mocked.

From her position on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton has developed something of a "third way" of talking about the war, by emphasizing the future and what she would do as president. Some of her advisers refer to her as "antiwar and pro-defense," a stance skewered by advisers to Obama, who has said that he is the only viable Democrat who opposed the war from the beginning.

Since her trip to Iraq shortly before announcing her candidacy, Clinton has focused on the future in that country, and over time, questions about her original vote for the war appear to have faded somewhat. Although she was mildly booed at the Yearly Kos convention in Chicago over the weekend, rival Democratic strategists said they have been frustrated by their inability to capitalize more on Clinton's war vote.

But not everyone is sympathetic to her balancing act. "I think she's reading the polls and running for president," said Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "She followed the country into the war, and now she's sort of following the country out of the war but doesn't want to do it in any sort of way that opens her up to any line of criticism."

Walt, who is not aligned with any candidate, added that Clinton "has not been willing to take many positions that moved her outside what the comfortable Washington consensus was at that moment."

The Obama campaign declined to directly criticize Clinton on her foreign policy positions.

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