The coulda-shoulda-woulda chorus just added a new soprano. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she wouldn't have voted for the Iraq war if she'd known then what she knows now.
Clinton was one of the last holdouts among the probable 2008 Democratic presidential candidates to embrace hindsight regarding her vote in 2002 on a resolution approving the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
It's been interesting to watch formerly pro-war leaders distance themselves, one by one, as conditions have deteriorated in Iraq. As always, timing is everything.
Was the first to cut and run from the hawk's nest the smartest? Was the last one more principled?
When to declare oneself anti-war has been a trick of politics and prudence. For Clinton, the call has been especially complicated.
As a woman, she's worked hard to establish herself as not soft on foreign policy. She serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, held her ground on the war, and even visited the troops in Iraq.
Then came that upstart Barack Obama - the Illinois senator, anti-war purist and pretender to the throne. Seeing him idolized in New Hampshire last weekend - his mug beaming from every newspaper rack - Hillary finally had to tweak her stand.
Thus on Monday, she joined others, including John Edwards and John Kerry, in declaring the stupendously obvious:
"Obviously,'' she said, "if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn't have been a vote ... and I certainly wouldn't have voted that way.''
But if we'd known what, precisely? That there were no WMD? No, if that were the case, Hillary might have come out sooner, as Edwards did in a Nov. 13, 2005, op-ed article for The Washington Post. He wrote:
"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. ... It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002.''
On the other hand, if Clinton had backpedaled then, people might have thought she was shadowing Edwards, not a good sign for the aspiring first female president in U.S. history. She'd have to bide her time and hold her ground a while longer.
This was getting tiresome. She'd had to hold the same miserable ground, risking her party's base, in 2004 when Kerry was flip-flopping like a fish on a hot dock, famously saying that Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.''
Kerry had voted for war just the same as Hillary, but he would have done things differently than Bush. Hillary's thinking: "Oh really, Lurch, like who wouldn't have?''
The truth is, most everybody didn't know the same things at the same time. When the Iraq resolution came up for a vote, the U.S. Congress had more hawks than a falconers' convention. A review of statements made prior to the invasion reveals a nearly universal lack of ambivalence.
A few dissenters seemed to know more than the rest, though they opted not to share until Iraq was coming apart. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., wrote in The Washington Post one week after Edwards (do you suppose they chatted?) that a classified report to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee - on which both he and Edwards served - included "vigorous dissents'' about whether Iraq had WMD and whether, if they existed, Saddam would use them.
On the basis of that report, Graham says he voted against the war. Edwards' pre-emptive mea culpa apparently shielded him from any flak sparked by Graham's revelations.
Clinton, who was not on the intelligence committee, may have known less. Or, as the wife of a former president, perhaps she knew more. In July 2003, Bill Clinton told Larry King: "People can quarrel with whether we should have more troops in Afghanistan or internationalize Iraq or whatever, but it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons.''
There's no dishonor in not being prescient. No one can predict a war's outcome, especially not in the midst of it. But if things were going differently in Iraq today - and they might have under better management - we can be sure the woulda-coulda-shouldas would be singing a different song.
Not "If I'da known ... ,'' but, "Who didn't know?''
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