Monday :: Nov 5, 2007

The Leading Democratic Candidates - Clinton, Edwards and Obama - on Iraq and Iran

by eriposte

In previous posts, I compared the leading Democratic candidates with respect to their voting records on Bankruptcy Legislation, Judicial and AG Nominations, and a wide variety of issues (Education, Environment, Healthcare, Taxation, Housing, Labor Rights, etc.) which involve consumer v. corporatist interests. As promised in one of my earlier posts, here is my first comparison of Sen. Edwards, Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama on the the topics of Iraq and Iran. I am separating this post into the following parts for clarity (note that all emphasis in this post is mine):

1. Edwards v. Clinton on Iraq

2. Edwards v. Clinton on Iran

3. Obama v. Clinton on Iraq

4. Obama v. Clinton on Iran

5. Conclusions

ENDNOTE on "Strategic Drift in Iraq"

1. Edwards v. Clinton on Iraq

As Steve mentioned earlier this year, neither Senator Edwards nor Senator Clinton have a flattering record when it comes to supporting Bush's campaign against Iraq. However, Eric Kleefeld at TPM Election Central compared their Iraq voting records and discovered the following (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

While the two voted together the vast majority of the time, there are several striking differences here that are definitely worth our time.

While both were initially supporters of granting President Bush the authority to invade Iraq, John Edwards was actually to the right of Hillary for some time. Edwards voted against liberal efforts to: Limit the war authority for just one year, after which the President would have had to seek it again; Call for tax increases to pay for the war effort; Force the creation of a report on the possible manipulation of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War. On those votes, Hillary voted the more liberal position.

Then things changed in late 2003 [i.e., when the 2004 election campaign started, with Howard Dean pushing a strongly anti-war position and forcing Kerry and Edwards to head more left-ward - eRiposte]: The two switched places, most notably with Edwards voting against the $87 billion appropriation — with Hillary Clinton making up the more pro-Administration half. And as the Presidential campaign progressed, Edwards' attendance for more Senate votes suffered a severe drop. [eRiposte note: The only vote where Edwards and Clinton voted differently between late 2003 and late 2004 was the $87B appropriation]

Let's recap. Sen. Clinton, contrary to portrayals that she wrote a completely unconditional "blank check", actually voted to limit the Congressional war authorization to one year, supported tax increases to pay for war, and supported the creation of a report on possible manipulation of intelligence in the lead-up to the war - back in the 2002-2003 timeframe. Sen. Edwards voted against each of these measures. Now, this does not in any way justify Sen. Clinton's other votes in favor of the Iraq resolution, but I usually see this context missing in the portrayals of Evil Republican DLC Hitlery Inc. Sen. Clinton - so I thought this should be mentioned.

Sen. Edwards subsequently admitted publicly that his vote on the 2002 Iraq resolution was wrong and took responsibility for the mistake:

I was wrong.

Almost three years ago we went into Iraq to remove what we were told -- and what many of us believed and argued -- was a threat to America. But in fact we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction when our forces invaded Iraq in 2003. The intelligence was deeply flawed and, in some cases, manipulated to fit a political agenda.

It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002. I take responsibility for that mistake. It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistake -- the men and women of our armed forces and their families -- have performed heroically and paid a dear price.

The world desperately needs moral leadership from America, and the foundation for moral leadership is telling the truth.

While we can't change the past, we need to accept responsibility, because a key part of restoring America's moral leadership is acknowledging when we've made mistakes or been proven wrong -- and showing that we have the creativity and guts to make it right.

The argument for going to war with Iraq was based on intelligence that we now know was inaccurate. The information the American people were hearing from the president -- and that I was being given by our intelligence community -- wasn't the whole story. Had I known this at the time, I never would have voted for this war.

For her part, Sen. Clinton said:

I take responsibility for my vote. It was a sincere vote based on the facts and assurances we had at the time. Obviously, I would not vote that way again if we knew then what we know now.


"Well, I, too, regret giving George Bush the authority that he misused and abused," she said. "It was a very difficult decision and I tried to weigh it as carefully as possible." She said she had been reassured by President Bush that he would pursue diplomacy. "So you know, looking back on it, I wouldn't have voted that way again, certainly, because obviously President Bush had no intention of doing what he said he was going to do. And obviously for me that is a great regret."

You can decide whether Sen. Clinton's regret satisfies you or not, but as of today, as Taylor Marsh has documented, the differences between Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton on their go-forward Iraq policy are more in nuance than in substance. Outside of splitting hairs about what constitutes combat or otherwise, they are not committing to bring all the troops back home shortly after becoming President - they are talking about a phased withdrawal.

2. Edwards v. Clinton on Iran

Sen. Edwards has been very critical of Sen. Clinton's vote for the toothless, non-binding Kyl-Lieberman resolution (and has misleadingly portrayed that vote as being equivalent to the 2002 Iraq resolution). However, let's look at Sen. Edwards' stated positions on Iran.

(a) On Iran's quest for nuclear weapons:

Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons. For years, the US hasn't done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran.....To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table. Let me reiterate -- ALL options must remain on the table...

That's not all he said:

The war in Lebanon had Iranian fingerprints all over it. I was in Israel in June, and I took a helicopter trip over the Lebanese border. I saw the Hezbollah rockets, and the havoc wreaked by the extremism on Israel’s border. Hezbollah is an instrument of the Iranian government, and Iranian rockets allowed Hezbollah to attack and wage war against Israel.

I cannot talk about the war last summer without referring to the Syrian role in destabilizing area. Syria needs to be held accountable. Syria has recently called for peace talks with Israel. Talk is cheap. Syria needs to go long way to prove it is ready for peace. It can start by not harboring terrorists and ending its nefarious relationship with Iran.

(b) On Iran's support for terrorism within Iraq (incidentally, as you read the passage below, note that Congress did not pass a "bill to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization" - the Senate passed a "Sense of the Senate" resolution):

In addition to the steps above, John Edwards will take special measures to root out and shut down terrorist cells in particular regions and countries. These are case-by-case policies and heavily depend on current events. As commander-in-chief, he will:

...Pressure Iran to stop supporting insurgents in Iraq. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, actively supporting terrorist and insurgent activity not only in Iraq but in other areas, such as Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Our policy must aim to stamp out state-sponsored terrorism targeting Israel, our strongest ally in the region. Congress recently passed a bill to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. We saw in Iraq where such steps by Congress can lead President Bush. Edwards has announced his opposition to this bill. As president, Edwards will increase both diplomatic contact with the Iranian government and diplomatic pressure on the Revolutionary Guard to shut down its support of insurgent activity in Iraq and in other areas, such as Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. He will also work with multilateral partners to forge a coalition to apply diplomatic and economic pressure to stop Iran's involvement in insurgent and terrorist activity in Iraq.

(c) At a time when Sen. Edwards was in the Senate, the Senate unanimously passed the "Counterterrorism Act of 2000" (S.3205) on 11/14/2000. This Act had a specific reference to Iran as follows (emphasis mine):


It is the sense of Congress that the United States should keep Iran on the list of countries who sponsor terrorism, and make no concessions to Iran, until Iran --

(1) demonstrates that it has stopped supporting terrorism; and

(2) cooperates fully with the United States in the investigation into the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia.

Unless I hear otherwise from Sen. Edwards, it is fair to assume he supported and still supports the designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. This designation is far more broad and serious than the designation of an arm of the Iranian Government (the Revolutionary Guards) as a terrorist entity. [NOTE: I have been unable to find the detailed roll call for S.3205 to confirm that Sen. Edwards was in the Senate that day, but since the reference to "unanimous" appears in both Sen. Feinstein's press release on the Act and in the Senate Bill summary, I am going to make a reasonable guess that he was present. Moreover, I would have a hard time imagining that, even if he had not been present, he would have been a lone dissenter against this critical and highly important Act at a time when he was more hawkish than most progressive Democrats who supported this Act.]

In other words:

  • Sen. Edwards believes that Iran should not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon, just like Senator Clinton
  • He believes Iran supports insurgent and terrorist activity inside Iraq and that such terrorist cells need to be shut down - not very different from Sen. Clinton's intent
  • Like Sen. Clinton, he also believes diplomacy and economic pressures (sanctions) should be used extensively to deal with Iran
  • He only dissents on the specific designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, but that is essentially a nuance, especially since he supported the designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism

Based on the above, it is hard for me to conclude that there are significant differences between his vision and Sen. Clinton's vision on how to deal with Iran.

3. Obama v. Clinton on Iraq

Sen. Obama's position vis-a-vis Sen. Clinton is equally interesting. His campaign has been making statements like this on the Kyl-Lieberman Iran amendment:

[O]nce again, Senator Clinton supported giving President Bush both the benefit of the doubt and a blank check on a critical foreign policy issue. Barack Obama just has a fundamentally different view.

Let's start with Iraq. Sen. Obama naturally gets maximum credit for presciently opposing the war against Iraq essentially from 2002. However, his voting record on Iraq once he entered the Senate was virtually identical to the voting record of Senator Clinton. As Greg Sargent and Eric Kleefeld noted at TPM Election Central:

So here it is: A massive compilation of Iraq-related bills -- and the votes by Hillary and Obama on them, side by side -- beginning in early 2005, when Obama first joined the Senate.

Of the total of 69 votes we compiled -- some significant, some not -- it turns out that the two differed on only one.
As you can see, Clinton and Obama have voted the opposite way on only one vote on our list: The confirmation of General George Casey to be Chief of Staff for the Army, held just this past February. Hillary voted against confirmation, while Obama voted to confirm.

So, while this doesn't take any credit away from Sen. Obama for his original anti-war position, it does raise the obvious question of what exactly he did in Congress differently that distinguished him on Iraq from Sen. Clinton, whom he claims to be "fundamentally different" from on this issue. As a corollary to this, his go-forward vision on Iraq is also not dramatically different from Sen. Clinton's, as Taylor March has observed. The differences are mostly in nuance, not substance. (NOTE: Given his voting record, there is also the obvious question of how Sen. Obama might have voted if he had been in the Senate in 2002-2004 - but I am going to give him some benefit of the doubt on the latter.)

4. Obama v. Clinton on Iran

What is Sen. Obama's "fundamentally different" view on Iran based on? Well, it's hard to say because:

(a) Sen. Obama co-sponsored a Bill in early 2007 that supported the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, just like the Kyl-Lieberman "Sense of the Senate" resolution (which is much weaker than a Bill) did. Moreover, as Jeff observed here at TLC, if Kyl-Lieberman was such a defining vote that gave Bush a "blank check" to go to war against Iran (it did not), it is disappointing that Sen. Obama did not even show up in the Senate to vote on the resolution even though he said he opposed it and had sufficient notice to show up to vote.

(b) Sen. Obama oddly declined to sign on to a letter to Bush co-signed by several Democratic Senators including Senator Clinton which asserts that the President cannot attack Iran without specific, new Congressional authorization. His position is that he will sponsor a new Bill to this effect - note, though, that such a Bill already exists (sponsored by Sen. Webb, with Sen. Clinton being a co-sponsor).

(c) Just a few days ago, Sen. Obama also said the following to the NYT, in which he expressed the view that Iran has been supporting militant/terrorist groups within Iraq and also expressed concerns about Iran's quest for nuclear weapons:

Mr. Obama said that Iran had been “acting irresponsibly” by supporting Shiite militant groups in Iraq. He also emphasized that Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and its support for “terrorist activities” were serious concerns.

But he asserted that Iran’s support for militant groups in Iraq reflected its anxiety over the Bush administration’s policies in the region, including talk of a possible American military strike on Iranian nuclear installations.

Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that “changes in behavior” by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.

We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith,” he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. “I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior.”
Mr. Obama has also talked about keeping a limited force in Iraq after withdrawing American combat units at the rate of one or two per month. But he insisted in the interview that the mission of his residual force would be more limited than that posited by Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Obama said, for example, that the part of the residual force assigned to counterterrorism might be based outside Iraq. He also emphasized that the residual force would not have the mission of deterring Iranian involvement in Iraq.

I commend Sen. Obama for talking about one of the key root causes for Iran's actions (the U.S. presence in Iraq) and his diplomatic approaches to address Iran's actions and behaviors (not dissimilar to Sen. Clinton's focus on diplomacy with Iran), but his position that he would retain a residual force in and out of Iraq that would be used for counter-terrorism missions in Iraq but not if those missions were for countering Iranian-sponsored terrorism within Iraq makes little sense. If the goal is counter-terrorism within Iraq, why artificially constrain what the American forces would counter? This strained half-measure seems to have been defined solely to maintain a distance from the Kyl-Lieberman resolution. I have a hard time believing that this type of foreign policy judgement is somehow better than the foreign policy judgment that says we will counter all kinds of terrorism within Iraq (Sen. Clinton's position - which has its own problems and limitations).

(d) That's not all. I find his current position on Iran also interesting given this interview from back in Sep 2004:

U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama suggested Friday that the United States one day might have to launch surgical missile strikes into Iran and Pakistan to keep extremists from getting control of nuclear bombs.
Given the continuing war in Iraq, the United States is not in a position to invade Iran, but missile strikes might be a viable option, he said. Obama conceded that such strikes might further strain relations between the U.S. and the Arab world.

"In light of the fact that we're now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in," he said.

"On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. ... And I hope it doesn't get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I'd be surprised if Iran blinked at this point."

He also said:

Make no mistake, if the Iranians and Syrians think they can use Iraq as another Afghanistan or a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries, they are badly mistaken. It is in our national interest to prevent this from happening.”

Does all of this suggest that he has a "fundamentally different view" from Sen. Clinton when it comes to Iran? It is hard to argue that that is the case. In other words, looking at both Iraq and Iran, the differences in views and vision between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton, outside of Sen. Obama's commendable original opposition to the start of the Iraq war before he was part of the U.S. Senate, don't amount to much at all.

5. Conclusions

In this post, I completed a first look comparison of the voting records of Senators Clinton, Edwards and Obama on the topic of Iraq and a comparison of their go-forward positions on Iraq and Iran. The main observations I'd like to make based on this are as follows:

Sen. Obama v. Sen. Clinton

IRAQ: Outside of Sen. Obama's prescient and commendable opposition to the Iraq vote/war in 2002, his voting record on Iraq has been virtually identical to that of Sen. Clinton - indicating that his actions on Iraq have been barely different from Sen. Clinton's. There are also no significant differences between Sen. Obama's vision and Sen. Clinton's vision on how they would deal with Iraq as President - the differences are arguably nuances.

IRAN: On Iran, despite Sen. Obama's criticism of Sen. Clinton's support for the toothless Kyl-Lieberman "Sense of the Senate" resolution, his support for a Bill earlier in 2007 that called for the designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, his views on the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and on Iran's support for terrorism inside Iraq, and his views on the options he would consider using to deal with Iran, do not differ in any significant way from the vision of Sen. Clinton.

Hence, Sen. Obama's claim that he is "fundamentally different" from Sen. Clinton hinges almost entirely on the fact that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. There is little "fundamental difference" between them on how they acted in Congress and how they would address Iraq and Iran going forward.

Sen. Edwards v. Sen. Clinton

IRAQ: Sen. Edwards was actually even more hawkish against Iraq in the 2002-2003 timeframe and voted against key progressive amendments that Sen. Clinton supported (a 1-year limit on the authorization, raising taxes to fund the war, a report to examine intelligence manipulation by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war). Outside of that, their voting records on Iraq are largely similar (he missed several votes during his 2004 Presidential campaign). Since then Sen. Edwards has conceded that his support for the Iraq war was wrong and a mistake. For her part, Sen. Clinton expressed regret for "giving George Bush the authority that he misused and abused" (on Iraq). Looking ahead, the Iraq policies of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards are very similar and seem to differ mostly in nuance rather than in substance.

IRAN: The Iran policies of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards also seem to differ mostly in nuance rather than in substance. Sen. Edwards has been at least as hawkish against Iran as Sen. Clinton has and has laid out a diplomacy-based approach to engage with Iran, just as Sen. Clinton has. For all intents and purposes, Sen. Edwards mainly differs from Sen. Clinton on the specific designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, but that is also essentially a nuance, especially since he supported the designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism - a designation that is far more broad and serious than the designation of an arm of the Iranian Government (the Revolutionary Guards) as a terrorist entity.

Hence, Sen. Edwards is very close to Sen. Clinton on Iraq and Iran - both on votes and positions - than the current electoral rhetoric might seem to indicate.

ENDNOTE on "Strategic Drift in Iraq"

Finally, since we are talking about foreign policy, I hope all Democratic candidates heed the warning from John Podesta, Larry Korb and Brian Katulis on "Strategic Drift in Iraq" (from the Clinton-supported Center for American Progress). As they point out:

Progressives are at risk of enabling strategic drift. Leading foreign policy voices and security institutes—some of the same ones who were wrong about going to war in Iraq in the first place and wrong about how to deal with the war’s first four years—have helped build a case that aids and abets the country’s slide toward strategic drift.

Progressives are frustrated because the president and his allies in Congress have obstructed their oversight of the administration’s Iraq policy. But they now risk drifting themselves into offering only a vague and muddled vision. Progressives must provide a clear alternative to counter the Bush policy of strategic drift—one that takes back control of America’s security interests.

A clear alternative: Focus on key U.S. national security interests. Progressives should start with a firm statement that America will undertake a strategic phased redeployment of its troops in a defined period of time. America’s interests, not Iraqi’s divided political leaders, will determine America’s timetable for redeployment.

Three steps are necessary to safeguard key U.S. interests in Iraq:

  • Suspend training and arming forces in a deadly civil war. To guard against the threat of an even larger civil war, the United States should suspend efforts to train, arm, and support Iraqi forces—the tribal forces and citizens groups, as well as the Iraqi police and army units that do not demonstrate allegiance to Iraq’s national government. Continuing these efforts in the absence of some degree of national accommodation risks an even deadlier conflict.
  • Broker a political settlement to Iraq’s conflict. As it redeploys troops, the United States should call for an inclusive emergency constitutional convention under the auspices of the United Nations to broker a national compact among Iraq’s competing factions. The goal of this constitutional convention would be to resolve the narrow set of core issues that prevent a stable Iraq from forming: delineating the lines of authority between the federal, regional, provincial, and local governments; striking an agreement on oil development; and settling differences over revenue sharing.
  • Buffer Iraq’s neighbors from the effects of the conflict. As it redeploys, the United States should work with countries in the region on how to address the growing refugee crisis and how to contain Iraq’s conflict within its borders.

Action in Iraq. Progressive leaders do not need to wait until January 2009 to prevent strategic drift. They can start now by

  • Limiting the 2008 supplemental funding request
  • Continuing to emphasize measures to restore U.S. military readiness
  • Continuing to advocate a diplomatic surge to stabilize the Middle East
  • Working to update the United Nations mandate that expires at the end of the year to develop an integrated U.N. framework for brokering a political settlement among Iraq’s leaders and organizing international support for Iraq
  • Enforcing the Leahy amendment barring aid to known human rights abusers
  • Enacting laws that restrict and hold private military contractors accountable for crimes and abuses
  • Addressing the growing Iraqi refugee crisis

More on "strategic drift" here.

eriposte :: 6:28 AM :: Comments (12) :: Digg It!