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The antiwar shuffle

Hillary Clinton, back from Iraq and facing a challenge from Obama, decides she's not so pro-war after all.

January 18, 2007

A MONTH AGO, the contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination was shaping up as a battle of the "firsts." Would Democrats rally 'round Clinton because she would be the first female president? Or Obama because he would be the first African American in the White House? This week, the faceoff between the two senators -- not the party's only would-be nominees but certainly the most talked about -- shifted from identity politics to Iraqi politics. That's not necessarily an improvement.

On Tuesday, as Obama was launching his 2008 exploratory committee, supporters of the freshman senator from Illinois were publicizing a website called obamawasright.com. Visitors to the site are reminded that Obama in 2002 called a war to topple Saddam Hussein "dumb" and "rash." Next to a picture of Clinton, who voted to authorize the war, is her statement in 2002 that "it is clear ... that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons." Take that, Hillary.

But she isn't taking it. On Wednesday, freshly returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, Clinton recalibrated her position on the war. She announced that she will support a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's planned surge of 21,500 troops to Iraq, as will many other congressional Democrats and some Republicans. The senator from New York also unveiled legislation to cap U.S. forces at Jan. 1, 2007, levels, though she indicated that she wouldn't vote to cut off funding for troops on the ground. (In Afghanistan, by contrast, Clinton proposed an increase in U.S. forces.)

Yes, Clinton has a political need for an orderly retreat from her earlier pro-war stance. But this is an ill-advised approach. As she herself has conceded, the Bush administration already has the necessary appropriations in hand to implement the surge in Iraq. Moreover, even some Democrats see constitutional problems in congressional micromanagement of troop deployments.

Still, Clinton is being forced to burnish her antiwar credentials against a contender who has the luxury of not having been in the Senate in 2002. And so, like many of her fellow Democratic senators, she is scrambling to get on what her party's primary voters deem the right side of history.

For Bush, the evolution in Clinton's position is another reminder that, in his own words, Americans' patience with the Iraqi government "is not unlimited" and that the surge must be a final effort to stabilize Iraq, not "stay the course" under another name. For Democrats, Clinton's dialing-up of her opposition to the war may mean that they will have to choose between her and other would-be nominees -- Obama included -- on other grounds. That could be a positive development.

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