a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

I have a responsible plan to end the war in Iraq

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th April 2008

Thursday, May 1 is the fifth anniversary of “Mission Accomplished” – the day George Bush stood on an aircraft carrier declaring major combat operations over in Iraq.

Five years later, the costs of war keep mounting and there’s still no end in sight. In 1994, the Republicans came up with a Contract with America that they worked to implement as soon as they were sworn in. This time around, it will be up to us to make sure that whoever is elected to Congress move briskly to enact the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq and bring our troops home.

True Majority e-mailing.

A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq - Click here to add your supportOn Thursday, I’ll be joining hundreds of others around the country who will be delivering a copy of the plan to their Congressional representatives (details below). We’ll be putting Washington on notice — once again –that there is strong support for getting out of Iraq and preventing future Iraqs.

As befits candidates for civilian, legislative office, the plan is a statement of purpose, campaign platform, and legislative agenda rolled into one rather than a detailed “brigade X leaves city Y at time Z” military plan. Its principles are…

  • Ending U.S. military action in Iraq
  • Using U.S. diplomatic power
  • Addressing humanitarian concerns
  • Restoring our Constitution
  • Restoring our military
  • Restoring independence to the media
  • Creating a new, U.S.-centered energy policy

The authors point to recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group in late 2006 to flesh out the fuller implications — e.g., renouncing permanent bases and ramping up a “diplomatic offensive” in the region. There are already legislative proposals to accomplish some of these goals: as Ilan Goldenberg writes in The New Republic, H.R.3797 (for a “New Diplomatic Offensive for Iraq”) would direct the president to appoint a high-ranking Special Envoy responsible for dealing with Iraq’s neighbors.

As is clear from the bullet list above, the plan is not just about how to get out of Iraq, but also about how to prevent future abuses of power from happening; thus, the plan also highlights legislation like S. 139, the Foreign Surveillance Expedited Review Act, which makes it easier to challenge FISA abuses in court, or H.R. 3045, the Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2007, which “[p]rohibits any state or federal court from relying on or deferring to a presidential signing statement as a source of authority when determining the meaning of any Act of Congress.” The “Responsible Plan” document also mentions legislation against “outsourcing” torture, and legislation requiring that the U.S. end its use of military contractors — i.e., mercenaries — in Iraq.

For more on the “Responsible Plan” — which was developed not by some think tank, but by Darcy Burner, Donna Edwards, and other progressive congressional candidates — visit the web site at, and download the document.*

To join my delegation to Congressman Van Hollen’s Hyattsville office, please RSVP at this “TrueMajority” link. We’ll gather as a group at Savory Cafe (7071 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park) around 8:30am on Thursday morning, go over the talking points, take a photo and then deliver the plan to the Congressional office at 9:00am. The address is

6475 New Hampshire Avenue
Suite C-201
Hyattsville, MD 20783 (map)
(301) 891-6982

I’ve called ahead to notify the staffer there of the meeting, which ought to be polite, of course — for one thing, Rep. Van Hollen is a co-sponsor of many of the bills highlighted in the “Responsible Plan” document.** It also will need to be brief — the staffer is due elsewhere by 9:30. If you prefer to meet us at the New Hampshire Avenue office at 9am, that’s OK, too, of course, but it may be nice to get a cup of coffee with us and get acquainted first.

* I’ve written about the plan here and here as well.
** This footnote will be replaced with (1) a list of “Responsible Plan”-endorsed legislation co-sponsored by Van Hollen, and (2) one list of such legislation not yet co-sponsored by him.

UPDATE, 4/30: is providing additional resources (signs, talking points) for the Responsible Plan Delivery here. They will also host a conference call tonight at 9PM EST with Alan Charney, the Program Director of USAction, and leaders behind the Responsible Plan including Congressional Candidates Darcy Burner and Eric Massa, as well as analysts from the National Security Network.

Responsible Plan Briefing Conference Call
Wednesday, April 30th, 2008, 9 PM Eastern
800-761-6708; entry code: 586945#


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Thoughts on "Bush’s War"; on the road

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th March 2008

I haven’t meant to keep quiet here quite this much since last Thursday — but now the pause may get extended through the weekend. We’re on the road to Connecticut to see an old friend, so new posts may not be possible and won’t be a priority.


I watched part 2 of Frontline’s “Bush’s War” documentary last night. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it; with a good Internet connection, you can watch it online.

One might quibble with the title; it wasn’t just Bush’s war: it was Rummy’s, Cheney’s, Condi’s, Powell’s, Tenet’s, Bremer’s, Franks’s, Casey’s, and Sanchez’s war as well — and ours too, at least for those of us (like me) who let ourselves be swayed into ever supporting it. I feel like I’ve said my mea culpas — and probably ought to extend them sometime. But so what, it’s still “mea culpa” and that doesn’t undo anything.

As far as the documentary itself: there’s a real value to retrospectives like this even if you think you follow the news closely. For me, having Condoleezza Rice’s role laid out as it was last night was revelatory. She obviously is the “last man standing”, so to speak, among the original Iraq war cabinet — and the “surge” is laid at her doorstep and that of Philip Zelikow, of 9/11 Commission fame.* They both failed to see that local “clear, hold, build” occupation successes — such as they were — in places like Tal Afar couldn’t be replicated across all of Iraq, even with a few thousand more U.S. troops. Rumsfeld was actually an opponent of a “clear, hold, build” strategy executed by U.S. troops, arguing that was the job of (nonexistent) Iraqi military units.

But at least one thing I don’t buy in the documentary is the implication that higher level administration officials — Cheney, Tenet — really, truly expected WMD to be found; they knew they’d been twisting arms or had their arms twisted to turn up what little fool’s gold they’d come up with.

* And, apparently unbeknownst to that commission, an author of the 2002 NSS (National Security Strategy) advocating preemptive and preventive defense.

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Donna Edwards et al on "A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2008

Donna Edwards and other congressional candidates explain why they’ve endorsed “A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq” in the video below:

Yes, I know he’s not Donna Edwards; I mainly want the leftyblogs Maryland link. Ms. Edwards has made the plan a prominent feature of her campaign web site. From the press release:

The United States has been in Iraq for 5 years now; 3,988 honorable servicemen and women are dead; over 29,000 are injured; as many as 1 million Iraqis are dead; and there is still no legitimate end in sight,” said Donna Edwards, Democratic nominee for Maryland’s 4th Congressional District. “This Administration and its Congressional allies continue to enable the war and defy the will of the American people who demand that a new path be forged. I join military and political leaders in calling for all possible military, diplomatic, and economic strategies to bring an end to the war while protecting American interests. When we enter Congress we will be clear about the expectations of the American people to embark immediately on a responsible plan to end this debacle in Iraq.

I actually happened to speak with plan co-author Lawrence Korb on the Metro yesterday. No, he doesn’t know me — I just happened to recognize him, and thanked him for his work. He said the Obama and Clinton campaigns hadn’t responded to the plan yet, which calls for no residual forces in Iraq whatsoever (beyond the minimum needed to guard the embassy). I assume that will change — but not unless we make them.

PS: Those of you on “facebook” can join the facebook supporters group here; for one-stop support of the candidates involved, go here; to read more about it, scroll down or click here.

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A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th March 2008

Responsibly ending the U.S. military action in Iraq and returning control of the country to the Iraqis is a critical step in enhancing U.S. security. This solution requires that no residual U.S. troops remain in Iraq. The continued presence in Iraq of so-called “residual” forces beyond the minimum needed for standard embassy-protection would be a serious mistake. Any such troops would become a magnet for insurgent attacks and unless they did nothing at all would inevitably become players in Iraq’s domestic political disputes, thus forcing the United States to continue to play referee to Iraq’s civil conflicts. Soldiers tasked with training missions would, to be effective, have to be embedded in Iraqi combat formations necessarily involving them directly in combat, thus continuing to hold American strategic fortunes hostage to events in Iraq that are beyond our control. […]

While the current administration and its allies may seek to portray a return pre-surge troop levels as the beginning of a military withdrawal, it is not enough to reduce troop levels to pre-surge levels. We must end the presence in Iraq of U.S. troops.

— from “A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq” (emphases added). The document was drafted and co-signed by ten candidates for the U.S. House: Darcy Burner (WA-8), Donna Edwards (MD-4), Eric Massa (NY-29), Chellie Pingree (ME-1), Tom Perriello (VA-5), Jared Polis (CO-2), George Fearing (WA-4), Larry Byrnes (FL-14), and Steve Harrison (NY-13), as well as Major General Paul Eaton (ret.), Dr. Lawrence Korb, Brigadier General John Johns (ret.), and Capt. Larry Seaquist (ret.)

The 36 page document is really more a declaration of purpose and a legislative/political plan, not a detailed military withdrawal plan.* It relies on Iraq Study Group timelines and statements of purpose — principally no open-ended troop commitment, a “diplomatic offensive” to secure outside help and guarantees for Iraq, no permanent bases, no goal of domination of Iraqi oil… and also no residual troops in Iraq, which I don’t recall the ISG being quite as explicit about.

Given the narrow confines of the Iraq debate at present, that’s a breakthrough. And the document isn’t just about Iraq; it essentially calls the United States as a whole on the carpet for issues ranging from torture to the blurred boundaries between news media and the administration before the war — often identifying specific pending legislation that might redress those issues. There’s a whole section titled, “Repair damage to constitutional processes and restore transparency and accountability,” recommending legislation restoring habeas corpus, ending signing statements, and ending “supplemental” outside-the-budget war funding. Tantalizingly, the declaration even speaks of holding perpetrators of war crimes responsible:

We should work with the international community to hold perpetrators of potential war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide accountable for their crimes. One way this could be done is by working with the United Nations to establish an independent war crimes commission or a special investigator to gather testimonies and investigate war crimes.

The declaration also, of course, directly challenges Clinton, Obama, and McCain to explain why maintaining even “residual” forces in Iraq is so important to them. I’m struck by how to the point it is — “Current State,” “The Desired End State,” “Proposals for Operations in Iraq,” “Preventing Future Iraqs, ” “Conclusion” … that’s it. About a third of it is devoted to end notes and an appendix listing pending legislation — it’s pretty quick reading.

All of the candidates involved deserve a lot of credit for developing this document. It deserves to be widely read and debated — and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should be challenged to adopt it as their own.

(Via Matthew Yglesias. The rollout is apparently happening at the Take Back America conference underway here in DC; here’s a firedoglake post with links to videos from the conference. Naturally, there’s a web site:

* For the details of a military plan to withdraw from Iraq, see “How to Redeploy,” also co-authored by the Center for American Progress’s Lawrence Korb. The page links to the full report, a 28 page .pdf file. From the introductory web page: “an orderly and safe withdrawal is best achieved over a 10- to 12-month period. Written in consultation with military planners and logistics experts, this report is not intended to serve as a playbook for our military planners but rather as a guide to policymakers and the general public about what is realistically achievable.” The plan is discussed in brief in the ThinkProgress post “The Way Out of Iraq: How to Safely and Orderly Redeploy in a Year;” it did envision leaving two brigades in Iraqi Kurdistan to prevent the outbreak of Turkish-Kurd violence, but otherwise calls for “phased consolidation” of the U.S. military in Iraq from the periphery to the center.

EDIT, 3/18: Candidate links added, and I’ve set up an ActBlue fundraising page for them, adding impeachment advocate Robert Wexler to the list.

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Real News: Winter Soldier clips

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th March 2008

Pieces providing an overview of the conference, “Winter Soldier testimonials,” testimony by Hart Viges, and commentary on Blackwater are also available, but aren’t currently listed above; there may be a 10-clip limit or something.

As eRobin mentions, these conferences and videos cost money. Consider supporting Winter Soldier and Real News Network.

UPDATE, 3/17: Also consider joining the “Iraq Fax-in“, set up by “We elected a Democratic Congress in 2006 to bring our troops home, but they keep giving Bush blank checks. Incredibly, Congress will soon vote on another $102 billion blank check.”
Also, there will be a teach-in at American University this Saturday, 10:30 am – 4:30 pm, at the Tavern at Mary Graydon Center, with appearances by Samuel Provance, Ray McGovern, David Swanson, and others. Organized by AU Patriots for Peace.

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Iraq War? How’s that going, anyhow?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th March 2008

Via the always excellent Real News Network, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies summarizes testimony from Winter Soldier: “Abu Ghraib was not an aberration, Haditha was not an aberration.” She goes on to criticize Obama and Clinton for apparently envisioning residual forces in Iraq, and I agree with her on that. But the lion’s share of the blame for those forces being in Iraq in the first place can not rest with Obama in any comparison between the two. Personally, I think that residual forces will be untenable when that time comes, and that they’ll be withdrawn in short order as well.

Bennis’s more telling point, and the point of the interview, is how coverage of Iraq in the mainstream media has nosedived:

…in most of 2007, media coverage of Iraq was only 15% of overall media coverage. […] What’s even worse is that in the period from …November 2007 to the end of February, just a few weeks ago, the number has dropped from 15% to simply 1%.

Bennis understandably misattributes the media finding to Pew Center for People and the Press, because they cite the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)finding in a recent report.* The Pew Center is, however, the source for what Bennis says about mistaken public beliefs about U.S. fatality levels (the largest group, 35%, think there have only been about 3,000, the reality is pushing 4,000) let alone Iraqi deaths. The percentage of the U.S. population getting U.S. fatality levels right, to the nearest 1,000, has dropped from 54% in August 2007 to just 28% in February 2008.

Meanwhile, even “surge” advocates can’t point to political gains they said themselves were the point of their military escalation in Iraq. We’ve essentially been treading water at great expense. That expense can be measured in treasure — a recent estimate puts the true cost of the Iraq war at $3 trillion dollars — and of course in thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi ones.

Returning to the Democratic primary campaign seems to trivialize such enormities, but it seems to me that even here, among some of the most activist, progressive, and informed subset of the American political scene, Iraq is being forgotten. What else can explain the pass given to Hillary Clinton on her ill-informed, misconceived 2002 vote for this war? What else can explain accepting her claims to superior foreign policy insights at face value — when she got the most important call she had to make on her own so completely wrong? Yes, Obama’s record has been similar since getting into the Senate — no, that doesn’t prove he’s the same if he wouldn’t have driven the bus into the ditch in first place. Yes, Obama can verge on fetishizing “postpartisanship”; no, that isn’t anywhere near as important as getting Iraq wrong, or getting the next case for war or peace right.

More and more is being made of less and less in this campaign. I’m thinking of things like the so-called “Stepfordization” of big-time bloggers like Josh Marshall, who — it’s true — more often than not takes the Obama side in the various daily controversies of the primary campaign. But to turn that, or possible pro-Obama mischief by conservative pundits, or the insults of some Obama blogger or other, into issues of any importance — let alone part of some kind of clinching web of reasons to prefer Clinton — is to ignore the elephant in her room. To seriously make these the issues affecting our choice for the next President of the United States would break faith with veterans, with Iraqis, and with our country’s future.

* While the PEJ figure cited is 3%, the accompanying graph shows that’s an uptick from a prior level, so that may explain Bennis’s 1% figure.

EDIT, 3/16: “fatality” for “casualty” as per RobertNAtl’s comment. Many thousands more are casualties with life-altering brain, limb, or other damage.

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Winter Soldier

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th March 2008

I meant to flag this, and now eRobin reminds me of it: the “Winter Soldier” event is taking place now, and can be listened to live via KPFA Radio’s “The War Comes Home” web site.

As TimesOnlines’ Ariel Leve explains (“Patriot missiles: Iraq Veterans Against the War“), “Winter Soldier” takes up where Vietnam vets left off in the 1970s:

In 1971, the protest group Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered at a hotel in Detroit. More than 100 veterans talked about the atrocities they had witnessed in southeast Asia.

The event lasted for three days and was named Winter Soldier after Thomas Paine’s famous article. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he wrote of the terrible winter of 1776, when Washington’s ragtag, demoralised army turned the tide of the War of Independence.

The Vietnam vets, spurred on by the court martial of Lt William Calley, who had ordered the infamous My Lai massacre, wanted to turn a tide too – against public opinion, to demonstrate that the execution of hundreds of innocent villagers in 1968 was not an isolated incident as so many believed. The Winter Soldier event received little coverage in America, but was the subject of an internationally acclaimed documentary of the same name.

This month, for four days in Washington, DC, beginning on March 13, there will be a second Winter Soldier gathering – 37 years after the first. Organised by the protest group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 attack on New York will testify about their experiences. They will present photographs and videos, recorded with mobile phones and digital cameras, to back up their allegations – of brutality, torture and murder.

(Link added.) Some of it is about what soldiers saw and did in Iraq; some is also about what’s happened since getting back. eRobin:

The soldier testifying now is talking about how after his return home he lost his apartment but a friend offered him the option of watching his apartment for him when he was out of town. So that was house-sitting – the soldier didn’t think he was homeless. And even though he would sleep in his car every so often when the friend was in town, that wasn’t too horrible. Then one day he was walking outside and he saw a lunch wagon handing out free food for homeless people and he was hungry so he got some without thinking anything of it. It was only when he saw a documentary crew getting footage for a film on homeless people of LA that it hit him that he was one of those people. That’s when the thoughts of suicide started.

You can also watch and listen to the proceedings via the Iraq Veterans Against the War web site.

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Worth reading

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th March 2008

  • The true cost of war (Aida Edemariam, The Guardian, 2/28/08) — After 3 years of research, Nobel prize economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it at three *trillion* dollars, so far, to the U.S. alone.
  • The Myth of the Surge (Nir Rosen, Rolling Stone, 3/08) —

    Hoping to turn enemies into allies, U.S. forces are arming Iraqis who fought with the insurgents. But it’s already starting to backfire. A report from the front lines of the new Iraq. […]As the Awakening gains power, Al Qaeda lies dormant throughout Baghdad, the Mahdi Army and other Shiite forces prepare for the next battle, and political assassinations and suicide bombings are an almost daily occurrence. The violence, Arkan says, is getting worse again.

  • Chicken Doves (Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 2/21/08) — [C]ongressional superduo Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have completed one of the most awesome political collapses since Neville Chamberlain. At long last, the Democratic leaders of Congress have publicly surrendered on the Iraq War, just one year after being swept into power with a firm mandate to end it.

  • Security Gains from “Surge” Backsliding (Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent, 1/31/08) —

    It used to be that surge enthusiasts would at least hint at the unachieved strategic objective of the surge. As Bush himself put it, the surge was meant to provide the Iraqi government “the breathing space it needs to make progress” on sectarian reconciliation. But reconciliation hasn’t happened, and, in important respects, sectarianism has deepened over the past year. So surgeniks are now simply declaring victory by the sheer fact of reduced violence itself, unmoored to any strategic goal.

  • The Greatest Threat to Us All (Joseph Cirincione, New York Review of Books, 3/6/08) — Cirincione reviews Richard Rhodes’s excellent third book chronicling the nuclear arms race, “Arsenals of Folly.” Not only did the Iraq WMD myth similar to prior ones about the relative strength of the USSR’s arsenal — some of the same people were involved in selling it. Put differently, it’s prudent to assume most of what Richard Perle says is either stupid or a lie.
  • The Dean Legacy (Ari Berman, The Nation, 2/28/08) — Top Dean supporters “believe the Clinton-Obama contest has become a referendum on the kind of grassroots party building and citizen empowerment Dean pioneered as a presidential candidate and continued as DNC chair.”

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Senator Clinton and the Iraq AUMF

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th February 2008

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I wound up voting for Obama in the Maryland primary because I thought “getting bamboozled into approving a disastrous war seems like a mistake [Hillary Clinton] could all too easily make again.”

At the time, I didn’t support that statement with a discussion of Senator Clinton’s vote for the Iraq Authorization of Military Force (AUMF). This post considers the evidence and alternatives available to Clinton* at the time, as well as subsequent statements about the AUMF and similar issues by herself and supporters.


Standards of evidence
A fundamental problem for 2002 AUMF supporters such as Senator Clinton (and Senator Edwards, and myself, for that matter) is that it turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And that was the premise on which Senator Clinton and so many others built their support, however reluctant or nuanced, for waging war — or authorizing it at President Bush’s discretion, if you prefer. As Clinton herself began her October 10, 2002 Senate speech announcing her support for the AUMF (emphases added here an in other quotes):

Today we are asked whether to give the President of the United States authority to use force in Iraq should diplomatic efforts fail to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons and his nuclear program.

Like most — but not all — of the Senate, Hillary Clinton accepted as a given something that would prove to be completely mistaken. She has insisted that she did not simply accept the Bush administration’s word for that, but did her own “due diligence” as well. That’s good, of course; how she appears to have done so is less good, judging by her statement to the Concord Monitor last December:

I talked to a lot of people in my husband’s administration, I talked to Tony Blair, I talked to a lot of sources, and I had the same question: Do you think he still has these kinds of capacities?

Apparently, many to most of her sources answered “yes,” “even though” they were Tony Blair or Clinton administration hands. “Due diligence” appears to have been simply substituting one authority with an equally mistaken second one — rather than personally consulting the available evidence and asking herself, “Do I think it’s proven that he has these capacities?”

Undue lack of diligence
Other Senators did just that by taking a close look at the complete National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) — all too few, to be sure (22 told the The Hill they did, while a staffer told the same reporters “less than ten”; a Washington Post article reports 6 signatures on a log).

The Hill report tally suggests there was a definite relationship between reading the NIE and “Nay” votes on the AUMF. Of the 22 Senators claiming to have read the NIE, 43% voted against the resolution, compared with only 23% of Senators overall. The discrepancy is larger yet for Democratic Senators — 10 of 14, or 71%, voted against the resolution. (A spreadsheet with detailed AUMF vote and NIE response data and tabulations can be viewed here.)

The full NIE made clearer the lack of intelligence agency consensus on Iraq WMDs — an instructive contrast with the browbeating certainties Cheney and Bush were trumpeting over the airwaves. Of course, skepticism about Bush’s Iraq WMD claims may have preceded reading the report for many Senators. But however their Iraq war “Nay” votes and NIE perusals were related, Senator Clinton was not among their number; she told a protester in New Hampshire that she was merely “briefed” on the NIE, according to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr. (“Hillary’s War,” New York Times Magazine, 5/29/07).

Gerth and Van Natta found one other crucial pre-war “intelligence consumption” error — or worse — by Senator Clinton. She accused Saddam of harboring Al Qaeda terrorists, even though that was not supported by the NIE she was briefed on, and was all but contradicted by other 2002 intelligence reports. Gerth and Van Natta note that Ken “Threatening Storm” Pollack felt the link was “[expletive]” — and discussed Iraq with Clinton before her 2002, though he didn’t share his advice with the two reporters.

Misled by experience

Video recorded by Kirsten Michel during a Code Pink meeting
with Clinton on March 6, 2003; to skip the singing, go to
the 1:30 minute mark.
Meeting transcript by Thomas Nephew (corrections welcome).

Senator Clinton believed she was drawing on President Bill Clinton’s experiences in authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. This was evident in a brief meeting Senator Clinton had with a large “Code Pink” activist delegation, reported by Gerth and Van Natta. As it happens, a video of the meeting (shot by Kirsten Michels) is available, and is provided to the right; I’ve made a transcript of the remarks by Senator Clinton and activist participants including Medea Benjamin. The meeting ended acrimoniously — an activist tried to give Senator Clinton a pink slip, who got angry about that — but before that it was a remarkably good window into the Senator’s thinking.

Senator Clinton claimed to have “ended up voting for the resolution after carefully reviewing the information and intelligence that I had available.” When a participant challenged the case for the war, adding “it is not up to this government to disarm Saddam Hussein, it’s up to the community of nations,” Senator Clinton responded:

…With respect to whose responsibility it is to disarm Saddam Hussein, I just do not believe that, given the attitudes of many people in the world community today, that there would be a willingness to take on very difficult problems, were it not for the United States’ leadership. And I’m talking specifically about what had to be done in Bosnia and Kosovo, where my husband could not get a Security Council resolution to save the Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleansing. And we did it alone as the United States, and we had to do it alone. It would have been far preferable if the Russians and others had agreed to do it through the United Nations. They would not. I’m happy that in the face of such horrible suffering we did act.

And so I see it somewhat differently – you’ll forgive me – from my experience and perspective.

It seems to me from this that Hillary Clinton’s experience, such as it was, actually worked against her; she made a false analogy between an actual human rights crisis* on the heels of prior ones and a theoretical WMD “crisis” that wasn’t, illogically seeing the obstacles to US action in both cases as proof-by-similarity of the correctness of the war policy — and of the short-circuited diplomatic policy that went with it.

The Levin Amendment: wrong then, still wrong now
The most interesting part of Gerth and Van Natta’s report is their examination of Clinton’s vote on the Levin Amendment to the AUMF — mischaracterized by Senator Clinton in the January 31 Los Angeles debate as suggesting that “the United States would subordinate whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council.”

While this was indeed an oft-repeated criticism — by the likes of Joe Lieberman or John McCain — during the October 9/10, 2002 debates about the Levin Amendment, it was simply untrue, as patient but unavailing rebuttals by Senators Levin, Sarbanes, and others made clear.

While the Levin Amendment made immediate congressional authorization of military force contingent on an appropriate U.N. Security Council resolution, it reserved the right of self-defense and also said that Congress would not adjourn indefinitely (“sine die“) but would “return to session at any time before the next Congress convenes to consider promptly proposals relative to Iraq if in the judgment of the President the United Nations Security Council fails to adopt or enforce” a resolution authorizing military force to enforce unrestricted inspections.***

That is, war was not authorized by the Congress unless it was by the United Nations — but if the U.N. didn’t authorize military enforcement of full inspection access, Congress stood ready to reconsider immediately. While the resolution shared the preconception that there were Iraqi WMD to discover and destroy, it was a last ditch effort to insert world community approval between peace and a unilateral decision by Bush to go to war. If that approval was not forthcoming, war proponents would have had to address that — along with the continued failure to find (nonexistent) WMD; if it was, the world would at least have shared in the responsibility for Iraq.

After considerable debate on October 9 and 10, the Levin Amendment failed 24-75 in the full Senate. While Senator Clinton subsequently argued, both in her floor speech on October 10th and in statements since then, that she was voting for diplomacy and against pre-emptive war, she had voted against the primary legislative effort that would have forced Bush to seek world community approval.

Unreliable memory
While Clinton touts her foreign policy experience, experience is no help if you don’t correctly remember (or communicate) what has happened. And Senator Clinton’s L.A. debate statement about the Levin amendment isn’t the only example of her getting uncomfortable facts about Iraq wrong. In her pre-New Hampshire primary interview with the Concord Monitor, Senator Clinton spoke of President Bill Clinton’s “Operation Desert Fox” as a precedent for Bush’s war, and a justification for her (qualified) authorization:

In ’98, [Saddam] threw the inspectors out, which at least to me raised the possibility that they were getting close to something, and therefore he wanted them out.

Well, no. What actually happened was that while Saddam arguably made it too difficult for inspectors to do worthwhile work, he didn’t “throw them out” — they eventually left at the behest of the U.S. ambassador to the UN, and a looming military campaign by the U.S. and U.K. to destroy suspect sites.

Looking ahead
Well and good: Hillary Clinton isn’t perfect, she made some mistakes that others — including John Edwards — have made as well. The critical thing now is that she’s learned from them.

Except that’s not clear, either. As Jonathan Schwarz (“A Tiny Revolution”) noted, she was willing to go out on a limb about what Israel had accomplished with its bombing of a Syrian installation in a debate last September:

…what we think we know is that with North Korean help, both financial and technical and material, the Syrians apparently were putting together, and perhaps over some period of years, a nuclear facility, and the Israelis took it out.

But as Seymour Hersh has written — and as Obama pointed out in a rejoinder — that’s not clear at all. Hersh said he was repeatedly told by sources that they were “not aware of any solid evidenceof ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.” Instead, the bombing may have just been a reaction to the Hezbollah war fiasco in the summer of 2006: “The truth is not important,” [an ambassador to Israel of an Israeli ally] told me. “Israel was able to restore its credibility as a deterrent. That is the whole thing. No one will know what the real story is.” So it may have been an attack on a questionable target to send a message and assuage a keenly felt defeat. Sounds familiar.

Likewise, there’s the matter of Iran. In Los Angeles, Clinton came out against “putting the prestige of the presidency” on the line with meetings with leaders of countries like (it may be assumed) Iran. Obama, by contrast, warned against “mission creep” in Iraq starting to include a goal of Iran. He also cited the — ahem — recent NIE on Iran, noting it “suggested that if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior, and we can do so in a way that does not ultimately cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and hurt our reputation around the world.”****

As some reading this blog know, I made arguments similar to Senator Clinton’s in 2003. But at least I now recognize at least some of the problems with these arguments — and their less rational underpinnings. Given that there were no WMD to disarm Saddam of, the evidence for them could not possibly have been definitive.

Hillary Clinton was certainly not alone in being certain that there were WMD in Iraq. Still, she did have more information at her disposal than most — and she failed to take advantage of that. In an early excellent analysis of pre-war intelligence and decision-making, “Operation Desert Snipe,” blogger RonK calls the whole fiasco “a marvelous case study in… collective self-deception. The plot spoilers were there all the time. “Everybody” was so sure, and so wrong.” Clinton supporters argue that she has long recognized her vote was a mistake, pointing to statements from late 2005 through the Los Angeles debate at the end of last month that “If Congress had been asked [to authorize the war], based on what we know now, we never would have agreed.” But that’s not really the same thing as saying “based on what we didn’t know then, we never should have agreed.” And while she arguably went a little further in the February 26 Cleveland debate, using it as the vote she would most like to have taken back and that she “would not have voted that way again,” it’s still not clear whether she understands or admits just what her mistake was in doing so.

There’s a revealing postscript to the Code Pink/Hillary meeting story, I think, in Gerth and Van Natta’s article. By 2006, Hillary Clinton was disenchanted with the Iraq war and began joining meetings of other Senators who were as well. But when Senator Feingold said “Democrats want us out” of Iraq, Clinton replied,“I face the base all the time…I think we need wiggle room.”

Hillary had not reached out beyond her comfort zone for advice, she had not taken the trouble to see for herself whether there was truly an imminent threat from Iraq, and she had voted against the measure that would have required a United Nations decision before proceeding to military action. Meanwhile, for all their kumbayah songs and pink outfits, Code Pink activists had been right, and she had been wrong. But even as she began to climb down from her 2002 mistake, they and other war opponents were still merely a “base” to be “faced” — and delayed.

Now the base is biting back. I’m not a whole-hearted Obama supporter, but on this — the defining issue of the last six years — his independent analysis was right, and her follow-the-leaders analysis was wrong. Under the actual rules of our political game these days, getting issues of war and peace right the first time has become the President’s job. By that measure Clinton is, shall we say, no slam dunk.

[Many of the items below can be found via a Hillary Clinton + Iraq shared link set.]

* It should be said that this evidence and these alternatives were also available to my favored candidate John Edwards. Also, as I mentioned last week, I shared the view at the time that Saddam’s alleged WMD development justified the war.
** (1) I realize some argue the Kosovo crisis was trumped up, but I respectfully disagree; after Bosnia and after Srebrenice, it was impossibile to exaggerate or ignore Milosevic’s willingness to engage in ethnic cleansing when the harbingers of more appeared in Kosovo. This may or may not have been our fight, but it was not a fight about a mirage. (2) Senator McCain also made the comparison to Kosovo during the Iraq AUMF debates.
*** E.g., Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) :“I will not and cannot support any effort to give the United Nations Security Council Congress’s proxy in deciding whether or not to send American men and women into combat in Iraq. No Security Council vote can answer my questions about plans for securing WMD or American responsibilities in the wake of an invasion of Iraq. It is for this reason that I must oppose the proposal of the distinguished Senator from Michigan.” However, contraeriposte” (“TalkLeft”) and other Clinton supporters, this should not be seen as agreement with Senator Clinton’s L.A. debate remarks. On the face of his remarks, Feingold was concerned about any automatic authorization of force, even one contingent on a UNSC resolution. Clinton — as her subsequent AUMF vote showed — was not.
**** From “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities”: “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”

EDIT, 3/2: “arguments” link added.
EDIT, 4/15: spreadsheet listed as separate resource.

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Dems win New Hampshire on change — not more of the same

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th January 2008

Mark Schmitt, writing at TPM Cafe, has said the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign is more about “theories of change” than about policy differences: Edwards’ populism and fighting stance, Clinton’s technocratic mastery of detail and process, Obama’s charismatic style, centrist rhetoric, and community organizer tactics.

But the main thing about all the Democratic candidates is that they stand for, or profess to stand for, change from the failed and dishonored Bush administration. And that continues to be a winning formula: given that about 55% of votes cast were in the Democratic primary — in a state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats — the headlines about New Hampshire today might just as well read “Dems Win.”

With 96% of precincts reporting, CNN reports that both Clinton and Obama decisively outpolled McCain — both gathered over 100,000 votes, while McCain’s supporters numbered about 87,000. What’s more, there’s at least anecdotal evidence suggesting many New Hampshire independents (who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans) considered voting for Obama but wound up voting for McCain — arguably in order to restore some order to the “Wrinkles, Beagle Eyes, Carrot Face, Oily” GOP freak show.

But the Washington Post and Fred Hiatt see it differently, with a silly op-ed about “Comeback Grownups.” And — of course — what’s “grown up” about the two New Hampshire winners is their position on Iraq:

His deep knowledge of foreign affairs, clearheaded approach to the threat of Islamic extremism and unwillingness to abandon his support for the war in Iraq, even when it threatened to cost him his bid for the presidency, are admirable […]

[Ms. Clinton’s] policy positions overlap with Mr. Obama’s more than they differ, but the differences aren’t inconsequential, especially in foreign affairs, where Ms. Clinton has had the more sophisticated approach to how to deal with Iraq and other danger zones.

To most of us, this election isn’t about “sophistication” or stubbornness, it’s about change — whether it’s “change we can believe in”, someone who’s “ready for change”, or a “campaign to change America.” But real change will have to take on voices and powers like Fred Hiatt and the Washington Post. In December, they wrote:

The keenest Democratic disappointment — failing to force the president to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq — is no disappointment to us. Although unhappiness with the war in Iraq helped propel Democrats to victory, in the end President Bush was able to secure continuing funding for the war with no strings attached.

And last week they smirked again about the stupid American people:

Likewise, the Democratic debate ought to advance from its current crowd-pleasing rhetoric… about “ending” the war in Iraq … to grapple more seriously with the challenges that will face the next president.

So inside the Beltway, the 2008 election is apparently more about how to stay the same, “grapple seriously,” and just talk about change for the rubes. That’s why I’ll continue to judge the candidates in large part by whether I detect that in their records and their rhetoric (and that’s why I continue to favor John Edwards). Harold Meyerson was right to warn last fall (“Silenced Majority“):

If Democrats are to win in 2008, it will be because they represent a decisive break, not a partially veiled continuity, with George Bush’s policies, and with his war policies most of all. The Democratic candidates, Clinton especially, need to assure voters that their voice matters more than those of the Beltway theorists who supported the war at the outset and still can’t contemplate ending the occupation. They need to assure voters, in short, that they take democracy in America seriously.

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