Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a statement by former President Bill Clinton to Hillary Clinton. It has been corrected.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton sat down on a Manhattan stage with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, the planned topic for discussion was babies’ brains and how to improve infant development around the globe.
Instead, the first three questions from Gupta focused on the U.S. airstrikes raining down on Iraq and Syria, aimed at defeating the expanding Islamic State terrorist group.
“I think the president gave a very clear explanation and robust defense of the action he has ordered with respect to the terrorists in Iraq and Syria,” Clinton told Gupta on Wednesday, adding later that “we do have unique capabilities we are using to give time to the Iraqi government to other governments to put together the kind of force that’s going to be necessary to take on, to degrade and to defeat these groups.”
War in Iraq is a subject that won’t go away for Clinton, whose Senate vote in 2002 to authorize the last war in that Middle Eastern country put her out of step with the Democratic base six years later. She lost her bid for president to a challenger who, as an obscure Illinois state senator, had come down on the antiwar side.
Now weighing another White House run, Clinton is faced again with the problems in Iraq and her role in shaping U.S. policy in the region. The airstrikes on the Islamic State group have inflamed the Democratic left, adding another potential line of attack against her if she decides to run for the White House.
In her remarks Wednesday — which came during the swanky Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting — Clinton was largely supportive of the Iraq and Syria strategy being pursued by her former opponent and boss, President Obama.
But, prompted by a question, Clinton also noted that, as the top U.S. diplomat, she had disagreed with Obama’s decision not to give more assistance to moderate rebels in Syria — while demurring on whether it would have made a difference. Both she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have suggested in other interviews that Obama made a mistake by not following her advice.
“I can’t sit here today and tell you that if we had done what I had recommended we would be in a very different position, I just can’t,” Hillary Clinton told Gupta. “You can’t prove a negative.”
The exchange underscores the perilous road ahead politically for Clinton as she decides how much to say, and what to say, about the unfolding campaign against the Islamic State. There are many questions she has yet to address at all.
Among them: Should the nation be prepared to commit ground troops if the bombing campaign does not achieve the desired result? Should Congress repeal or rewrite the broad 2001 authorizations upon which Obama is relying as justification for U.S. actions in Iraq and Syria? Should Americans be troubled by the fact that strikes against Islamic State extremists could help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintain his hold on power — the very thing that she wanted to undermine by arming the rebels earlier? And should the United States become resigned to the prospect of long-term war in the Islamic world?
“I think everybody who’s considering running for president is going to have to tell the public where they are on these important issues. Like it or not, everybody is going to have to weigh in,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), an influential House Democrat who says Congress should assert itself more vigorously and go on record opposing the deployment of ground troops.
Clinton basked in the spotlight this week in New York at the celebrity-studded annual conference her husband founded. But she sought to keep most of her focus on such unassailable topics as philanthropy and opening opportunities for women.
That Clinton would be reluctant to discuss Iraq is understandable, both on grounds of substance and politics.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who ran for president as an antiwar candidate in 2004, said before Clinton’s remarks Wednesday that “there’s no upside to answering questions, ‘What would you do differently than the president is doing?’ ”
No matter what she answers, Dean said, “the press is always running and pitting her against President Obama. She’s been put in a no-win position by the Beltway press corps.”
Clinton caused a sensation in August when she told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic that Obama’s “failure” to assist the Syrian rebels “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled. They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.”
On Sunday, Bill Clinton sounded a similar note in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, albeit with some hedging. “I agree with her, and I would have taken the chance. I also agree with her when she said we can’t know whether it would have worked or not.”
Nor was that the only time that Clinton took a hawkish stance during her tenure as Obama’s first secretary of state. She supported a bigger troop surge in Afghanistan than the one that Obama approved in 2009, and she pushed the president to bomb Libyan targets in 2011.
Now, antiwar sentiment is stirring again within the party’s liberal Democratic base at the prospect of another long-term military engagement in the Middle East — this time, led by a president of its own party who had been elected on a promise to end such conflicts.
Last week, more than 40 percent of House Democrats voted against Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.
Among the 10 Democrats who voted against it in the Senate were Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), whom many of the most ardent liberals would like to see challenge Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary season. Warren denies having any plans to do so.
“I do not want America to be dragged into another ground war in the Middle East,” Warren said in a statement. “It is time for those nations in the region that are most immediately affected . . . to step up and play a leading role in this fight.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a Clinton supporter, called for a robust congressional debate to clearly define the parameters of the U.S. military posture in Iraq and Syria. He favors a new war authorization putting strict limits on Obama and whoever succeeds him in 2017.
In a presentation at the Center for American Progress — a liberal think tank that Clinton helped found — Kaine said that Congress’s reluctance to influence the course of the military engagement is “just the height of public immorality.”
Kaine received loud applause in conclusion, but afterward, he brushed off questions about Clinton.
“I’m with Hillary,” he said. A few hours later, he co-hosted an event downtown for a super PAC that is supporting her as a potential 2016 candidate.
Meanwhile, the fact that the country is once again on a war footing could prompt other Democrats to challenge Clinton’s perceived inevitability as the party’s next nominee.
“We continue to be trapped in the never-ending, never-changing entanglements of the Middle East,” former senator James Webb (D-Va.) said Tuesday in a speech at the National Press Club.
Webb told the crowd that he is “seriously looking at the possibility of running for president. We want to see if there’s a support base from people who would support the programs that we’re interested in pursuing.”
Paul Kane and Robert Costa contributed to this report.