Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's remark during this week's Democratic presidential debate that Iraq is "George Bush's war" may be interpreted as either brilliant strategy or desperate deflection.
Mrs. Clinton may get points for strategy - as the front-runner, she doesn't need to attack her Democratic opponents - but she was also deflecting. She tried to paint a picture of Democratic unity on the war question. "The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major," she said. To which John Edwards replied: "There are important differences between us on this."
Mrs. Clinton is desperate on the war question. To win her party's nomination, she needs to be anti-war; to win the general election, she has to be viewed as militarily tough. Somewhere in the middle is a principle upon which she ought to stand, if she could find it.
Early on during the anti-war surge, she stood bravely by her vote. Then, under pressure from the Democratic base, she said she wouldn't have voted the way she did had she known then what she knows now. By the first Democratic debate last month, she said she regretted trusting President Bush when he said he would let U.N. weapons inspectors do their work. By Sunday's second debate, Mrs. Clinton's Iraq war vote was really for "coercive diplomacy."
In fairness to Mrs. Clinton, she did say in her Senate floor statement preceding the Iraq resolution vote that she was not seeking a new policy of pre-emption or unilateralism and would have preferred a stronger requirement for the diplomatic route.
Despite misgivings, she said she would take the president at his word "that he will try hard to pass a U.N. resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible."
Perhaps that's what Mrs. Clinton was referring to when she said she was hoping for coercive diplomacy. Even so, she expressed no misgivings about Iraq's threat to the United States, saying that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein would "continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons."
Mrs. Clinton also said her decision granting war authority to the president was made easier by Mr. Bush's Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati in which he outlined his reasons for seeking congressional approval for war.
Although Mr. Bush did say he hoped military action wouldn't be necessary, he also said he had no faith that Mr. Hussein would suddenly begin cooperating with inspectors. No one hearing the speech could express surprise that the United States was going to war.
Indeed, by spring the following year, Mrs. Clinton was making her own case for the war. At a March 2003 meeting with members of Code Pink, aka Women for Peace, Mrs. Clinton said that she had done her due diligence and studied the intelligence before voting for the Iraq resolution.
The way to avoid war, she told the women, was for Mr. Hussein to disarm, adding, "I have absolutely no belief that he will."
New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., authors of Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote in Sunday's New York Times Magazine that Mrs. Clinton won't say whether she read the complete classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which included caveats about Mr. Hussein's weapons supplies and doubts about any alliance with al-Qaida. The 90-page NIE report was made available to all 100 senators 10 days before the Senate vote.
If she had read the whole report, could Mrs. Clinton have voted as she did? If she didn't read it, can she now claim that she was misled?
Whatever Mrs. Clinton thinks she thought, her vote and words do not accurately reflect what she now insists she meant. Her attempt to reframe her vote without issuing the apology that some on the anti-war left want from her is what it seems to be - a political calculation.
Mrs. Clinton would have done better to stick to her original principle: She did what she thought was right at the time and wishes the war had been better managed. That's an assessment that other war supporters can share and that war protesters can respect. Americans tend to be forgiving of errors in judgment made in good faith. They are less forgiving of fudging history in the service of politics.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.