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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars | The Nation

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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars

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Holbrooke's brand of "muscular liberalism" has come to define Hillary. He helped shape not only Bill Clinton's but Hillary's views on the necessity of using force in Bosnia and consulted with her frequently about her vote on Iraq. "I know her well, I saw her through that period, I accept it 100 percent," he said in September. Indeed, in his last press conference as UN ambassador, Holbrooke called Saddam Hussein "a clear and present danger at all times" and said the incoming Bush Administration "will have to deal with this problem," reflecting the Clinton Administration's official policy of regime change. In the run-up to war, Holbrooke was quoted in the New York Times or Washington Post every week. He urged President Bush to go to the UN but afterward said Bush had "ample justification" to invade Iraq and wrote that antiwar demonstrators, along with the French and German governments, had "undoubtedly encouraged" Saddam. In the 2004 campaign, Holbrooke became a key foreign policy adviser to John Kerry. Like Hillary, Holbrooke took a particularly cautious tack on Iraq, telling Kerry to keep his views on the war "deliberately vague."

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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After the election, as figures like former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and Representative John Murtha turned against the war, Holbrooke refused to say how the United States should extricate itself from Iraq. "I'm not prepared to lay out a detailed policy or strategy," he said in December 2005, around the time that Clinton wrote a letter to her constituents defending her vote for the war. A year later, after events on the ground had spiraled even further out of control, Holbrooke, like Clinton, finally argued that the United States should "start to disengage from Iraq while pressing hard for a political settlement." He testified before Congress opposing Bush's troop surge and rebutted Gen. David Petraeus's presentation in support of it this past September, though he noted that, unlike Senate Democrats, he opposed using the Congressional power of the purse to end the war.

As Holbrooke found his footing on Iraq, however, he remained one of the leading hawks in Hillaryland on Iran. In 2004 he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "The Iranians are an enormous threat to the United States, the stability in the region, and to the state of Israel" and claimed the European Union would "never get their act together." Holbrooke has twice spoken at rallies against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York, comparing him to Hitler. At a November 27 speech in Toronto, Holbrooke listed the reasons the Bush Administration would not attack Iran but called the country "the most pressing problem nation" and "the most dangerous country in the region," accusing the Iranians of exporting explosives "that are killing Americans in Iraq."

Little Holbrooke said about Iran could have prepared one for the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which found that the country had abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 as a result of diplomatic pressure. "It significantly decreases the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran," Holbrooke told me after the NIE became public. "You have to keep all options on the table, but I thought even pre-NIE that there was no justification for a military strike." He stressed, however, that America needed to remain vigilant about Iran. "It's good news that Iran is much, much further from a nuclear weapons capability," Holbrooke said. "But that doesn't change the fact that they are still a deeply destabilizing regime--supporting Hamas, Hezbollah. And they need to be part of the solution in Iraq."

Iran is a particularly sensitive topic among Clinton supporters. Her September vote for the Senate's Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which dubbed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq, aroused a furor among establishment Democrats and grassroots activists. Peter Galbraith, who knows the region well, circulated a statement in the Senate opposing the resolution. "The reason I was so opposed to Kyl-Lieberman was because it was based on the premise that Iran was undermining US efforts in Iraq, and that's just not true," Galbraith told me. Joe Wilson said he also opposed Kyl-Lieberman, primarily because "I don't trust Lieberman or Kyl."

General Clark, who commanded NATO under Bill Clinton, quickly defended Hillary's vote, writing in New Hampshire's Manchester Union-Leader that "she is forcing the Bush administration to apply diplomatic pressure." Clark told The Nation, "The people harping and carping on the vote and comparing it to her vote on Iraq are oversimplifying the complexities of real diplomacy." In an NPR debate following the NIE release, Clinton argued, based on what her advisers said the military had told them, that because of the Kyl-Lieberman vote, "we've seen changes in their behavior." As Iran heated up as a campaign issue, Clinton's advisers welcomed the NIE with a degree of relief. "It removes this as a campaign issue for Democrats," said Lee Feinstein. He noted that Clinton, like Obama, "supports direct negotiations with Iran, now."

Even if Iran is off the table, as Feinstein hopes, Iraq is not. How many troops Clinton would remove from Iraq--and how quickly--remains a source of contention in Democratic policy circles. "We have remaining vital national security interests in Iraq," Clinton told the New York Times in March. That includes, her advisers say, fighting Al Qaeda there, preventing Iranian arms from crossing the border, protecting the Kurds and possibly training Iraqi security forces, depending on their capabilities. Clinton has pledged to start withdrawing troops in her first sixty days in office but until recently refused to specify when most of them would come home and how many would stay behind. In a policy shift, she said on December 20 that "we can bring nearly everybody home, you know, certainly within a year." Feinstein said the remaining troops would engage in a much narrower set of missions, probably entailing "special operations reinforced with air power," which he says "is far different than patrolling a civil war." Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi army in 2003-04 and is advising Clinton, contradicted Feinstein, predicting that such a residual force "is going to be fairly big."

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