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Clinton's Foreign Policy Balancing Act
In Her Stances, Senator Has One Eye on Primary, One on General Election

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.

"All I can say is that Senator Obama has been a strong and consistent opponent of this war from the start because he believed it would mire us in an endless civil war and strengthen al-Qaeda," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "That judgment and willingness to challenge the conventional thinking of Washington is an important quality in the next president."

Nonetheless, in an election year in which Iraq may well be the defining issue, Clinton remains the clear front-runner nationally. She is running even with Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) in Iowa, arguably the most antiwar early-voting state.

Clinton advisers say they see her rising on parallel tracks: among liberals who believe her when she says she would end the war, and among centrists who believe she is "tough enough" to defend the country. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Clinton ahead among Iowa voters on four key attributes: her ability to handle the situation in Iraq, strength as a leader, experience to be president and having the best chance to win in November.

Advisers to Clinton believe that her recent foreign policy moves have only made her more competitive, and they point to substantive steps she has taken, including introducing legislation requiring the Pentagon to report on its planning, co-sponsoring legislation to deauthorize the war and challenging Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman to explain whether the Pentagon had a strategy to withdraw troops.

Perhaps most impressed by Clinton's ability to balance running in a Democratic primary and looking ahead to competing against a Republican are Republicans themselves.

"I think primary politics has its own magnet, and if you allow that magnet to pull you too hard and too far it can certainly put you in a bad position if you do get the nomination," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview last week, shortly after the back-and-forth between Clinton, with whom he serves on the Armed Services Committee, and Obama over nuclear force.

"I think Senator Clinton, for the second time, seized on statements [by Obama] that probably would not play well in the general election," said Graham, who supports Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president.

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, sounded more effusive. "Obama," he said, "is becoming the antiwar candidate, and Hillary Clinton is becoming the responsible Democrat who could become commander in chief in a post-9/11 world."

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