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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/10/2007

The Fine Print in Hillary's Promise to 'End the War'

By Michael Dobbs

Hillary Clinton in Iraq in January. (AP).

"If this president does not get us out of Iraq, when I am president, I will."

--Hillary Clinton, Democratic debate, South Carolina, April 26, 2007

"I will immediately move to begin bringing our troops home when I am inaugurated...[But there] may be a continuing counter-terrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed al Qaeda in Iraq. It may require combat, Special Operations Forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out."

--Hillary Clinton, Democratic debate, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, September 26, 2007.

So which is it? Getting out of Iraq altogether, or leaving troops in there, to wage war against Al-Qaeda and so forth?

The Facts

The Democratic front-runner has gone back and forth on this question for many months, leaving voters unclear about what she would do in Iraq if she became president. "If this president does not get us out of Iraq, I will" is a great applause line, invariably triggering cheers from her supporters. It shows that she is tough and very different from George Bush. It also distracts attention from her Senate vote authorizing military action against Iraq in October 2002.

Hillary has used several different versions of the "I will" line in different venues around the country, each with slightly different connotations. Sometimes, as in South Carolina, she promises simply to "get out of Iraq." At other times, she promises to "end the war." See the Iraq policy statement on her website here. And sometimes, she pledges to "end our involvement in Iraq." See the transcript of the Democratic debate hosted by Chris Matthews of MSNBC on June 16 here.

It is only when you examine the details--like the fine print in an insurance contract--that you discover that Clinton's pledge to "get out of Iraq" is far from iron-clad. There are numerous conditions attached. She enumerated some of them in the June 19 Democratic debate when pressed by Chris Matthews. Read the full transcript here. Clinton's list of "vital national security interests" in Iraq turns out to be quite lengthy:

  • "We cannot let Al Qaeda have a staging ground in Iraq."
  • "We have made common cause with some of the Iraqis themselves in Anbar province."
  • "We also have to look at the way the Kurds are being treated."
  • "We also have to pay attention to Iranian influence."
  • "We will have to protect our interests. We'll have an embassy there."
  • "If the Iraqi government does get its act together, we may have a continuing training mission."

  • Here are a couple more reasons cited by Clinton for a continuing deployment of American troops to prevent Iraq degenerating into a failed state "that serves as a petri dish for insurgents and Al Qaeda." They come from an interview she gave to the New York Times back in March.

  • Iraq "is right in the heart of the oil region."
  • Leaving Iraq altogether would be "directly in opposition to our Israel's interests."

  • Somehow that doesn't sound like a firm promise "to get out of Iraq" or, even less, a guarantee to "end our involvement there."

    In February, Clinton introduced her own bill in the Senate to place "limitations" on the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Known as the "Iraq Troop Protection and Reduction Act of 2007," the measure fell well short of a commitment to get out of Iraq, before or after the 2008 presidential election. It called for a "phased redeployment" of U.S. forces from Iraq, but listed a number of exceptions, including "training" and "providing logistical support" to Iraqi security forces, "protecting U.S. personnel and infrastructure," and participating in "counter-terrorism activities." Even the threat to cut funding for the war is carefully hedged, permitting certain types of combat operation for years to come. Clinton has voted to fund continuation of the war a dozen or so times since the March 2003 invasion, but voted against funding last spring.

    Confused? The Clinton campaign is not doing much to clarify matters. During a September 23 Meet the Press interview with Clinton, moderator Tim Russert cited a new brochure that the campaign was distributing to New Hampshire voters which included the sentence: "Hillary will begin immediate phased withdrawal with a definite timetable to bring our troops home."

    Russert pointed out that Clinton had gone on record opposing a timetable for bringing the troops home on the grounds that "we don't want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists that we're going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain." See, for example, this November 2005 letter to her constituents. Clinton was booed in June 2006 at a conference of liberal Democrats when she rejected such a timetable. See video here.

    Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines noted that last spring the senator voted in favor of a resolution setting March 31, 2008 as a target date for ending the "combat phase" of the war. He said in an e-mail that Senator Clinton was "committed to finding any and all possible ways to get the President to reverse his failed policies in Iraq," and added:

    "Counterterrorism missions would not require a large U.S. presence and she has said would mostly be done by Special Operations forces - we deploy Special Operations forces against Al Qaeda all over the world so it is inaccurate to call such actions a continuation of the war in Iraq."

    The Pinocchio Test

    It seems fairly clear what is going on here. Hillary wants to let her supporters know that she will end the Iraq war and bring the troops home. Bold statements about ending U.S. "involvement" in Iraq win points on the campaign trail and enthuse the Democratic base. At the same time, she also does not want to tie her own hands as president with promises made during the election. Thus the fine print.

    To be fair to Clinton, other candidates have also been less than forthright about how they would end the Iraq war. Over the next few months, we will take a look at statements by leading candidates from both sides of the political divide on this vital issue. We should also note that Clinton usually acknowledges exceptions to her "get out of Iraq" rhetoric when asked a specific question by a reporter or an audience member.

    On the other hand, her bold "I will end the war" promise is an obvious exaggeration. A truer description of her position would be, "I will do my best to end a war that I now believe to have been deeply mistaken, but the United States has many interests in the Middle East that must be protected."

    (About our rating scale.)

    By Michael Dobbs  | October 10, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
    Categories:  2 Pinocchios, Candidate Watch, Iraq  
    Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: 'Boots on the Ground' in Iraq
    Next: The Mitt and Rudy Show: Lies, damn lies, and statistics


    The fact checker is one of the best features of the Post, and much more useful than the thinly veiled commentary by the so-called page 1 national correspondents, which relies too little on facts but instead on unattributed whispers.

    Posted by: Salus | October 10, 2007 8:28 AM | Report abuse

    The fog she has created around her position on the war is classic triangulation.

    The only fact here is that Hilliary will say just about anything to get elected.

    She is the closet thing we have to Bush in the Democratic race.

    Posted by: crawlaw | October 10, 2007 9:01 AM | Report abuse

    This is the best description and explanation of a candidate's position ever. I think you are being overly fair to Clinton - No candidate in their right mind would make such black and white statements about Iraq since there is no easy answer, and maybe no answer at all! She can say "I am committed to getting out of Iraq, but it won't be easy and no one can say when." I know all the candidates will be tempted to say what they think people will want to hear. If she is for a change in American foreign policy which would eliminate any kind of action such as the one this President took in Iraq, then that is what she should say.
    Bravo to the Post!

    Posted by: hilda | October 10, 2007 9:02 AM | Report abuse

    She learned from Bill. In front of any specific audience, say what will get you elected. Even if it is diametricaly opposed to what you said to a different audience.

    Posted by: Stick | October 10, 2007 9:02 AM | Report abuse

    I can't believe you only gave her 2 Pinocchio's!!

    The fact is, any Democratic politician with half a brain knows that all-out withdrawl from Iraq would be a DISASTER for the US. We'd be sending our troops back in less tan 2 years, and they'd have an even harder fight that time.

    No president is going to pull us out of Iraq before we achieve a reasonable stability that can be maintained by the Iraqi's.

    But the Democrats will keep saying it in order to win votes and support from the anti-war crowd, most of whom mean well, but are very misinformed as to the consequences of a pull out.

    Debating the war is NOT unpatriotic. Opposing the war is NOT unpatriotic. It is however, incorrect, but I'd be happy to debate the consequences.

    Voicing support for a with-drawl when you know it's the wrong thing to do is a cheap political trick and IS unpatriotic.

    You may not like Bush, and he has made a lot of blunders, but don't confuse disliking him with choosing the right course from here out.

    Hillary will say whatever will get her elected. God help us all if she wins.

    Posted by: Ben | October 10, 2007 9:35 AM | Report abuse

    Come on. Trying to directly compare statements made in April to those made in September of this year is disingenuous. Things change, and the Democrats are not controlling deployments in Iraq or anywhere else.

    This is like the recent debate, in which none of the top Democratic contenders would commit to having all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of his or her first term - 2013. They were slammed for this. That is unfair, because the current occupant still has 15 months in which to screw things up worse than they are now - and his track record suggests that he will do just that. We have a fair idea of what the next president will inherit in January of 2009, but that's not enough to make a commitment on. Consider how things in Iraq looked in October of 2003, compared to how they looked in January of 2005 - Did candidates John Kerry and Howard Dean have any idea in 10/2003 what Iraq would look like in 1/2005? I don't want to apologize for the wishy-washyness of some of these Democrats, but we have to be realistic.

    Posted by: achilli | October 10, 2007 9:40 AM | Report abuse

    Perhaps you should also present the views of her Democratic rivals.

    Barack's position is much clearer. He intends to withdraw 1 brigade per month.

    Richardson intends to immediately bring them home without leaving supplementary force.

    Posted by: Matt | October 10, 2007 9:53 AM | Report abuse

    "To be fair to Clinton, other candidates have also been less than forthright about how they would end the Iraq war."

    That's putting it mildly. It seems awfully selective to pick on Clinton about this. Heck, I don't even like her but it's obvious that she's simply being more practical and honest about how best to end Bush's War than the majority of her opponents.

    Why don't you assign Pinocchios to anyone who talks about 'winning' Bush's War? Anyone who talks about 'winning' without defining what 'winning' looks like, exactly, is issuing a 5-Pinocchio whopper. And, with the sole exception of Ron Paul, that'd include the entire R field. How about if we check the 'facts' on both sides of the aisle, shall we?

    Amazing how the R rubes keep falling for the 'winning' concept over and over and over as if we were the Allies marching victoriously into Berlin once more. Hellooo? Wake up and smell the coffee that's been brewing since Korea and Vietnam.

    Posted by: Judge C. Crater | October 10, 2007 9:58 AM | Report abuse

    Its kind of sad that we have a "frontrunner" whose words we have to parse to get at the truth. Shades of the 1990's.

    Posted by: Matt Sutton | October 10, 2007 10:37 AM | Report abuse

    Doesn't it depend on what the meaning of "war" is? If ending the war involves having all our troops out of Iraq, then her more hawkish claims make sense. If ending the war involves leaving (say) 30,000 troops at fortified bases in Iraq to carry out missions against specific targets, then her more dovish claims make sense.

    Why isn't the problem with Clinton's "I will end the war" promise a matter of ambiguity rather than exaggeration?

    Posted by: Bill | October 10, 2007 10:43 AM | Report abuse

    If you don't really know what you want, your statements can easily reflect a degree of ambiguity.

    Everyone has a list of horrible outcomes that could overtake Iraq and the Middle East in the event the American army left Iraq, from a regional conflagration to a humanitarian crisis. The truth is, though, that only one of those horrible outcomes -- Iraq becoming a sanctuary for Islamist terrorism -- is something American interests require that we prevent. And the cost of the Iraq war, both in financial terms and in terms of the many things our government cannot do because it spends all its time on Iraq, cannot be sustained long enough for us to make sure that all bad outcomes can be avoided.

    The American commitment in Iraq must be liquidated. That is the requirement American policy must address. There may be damage control measures we can take, in the course of addressing this requirement. But a candidate who is ambiguous about liquidating the commitment there is pointing us down a road we cannot afford to travel for long.

    I realize that on the campaign trail ambiuity is useful to Sen. Clinton at this time. What Americans should understand, though, is that their political class routinely confuses the requirements of the campaign with the requirements of governance -- and Sen. Clinton, a creature of the permanent campaign, does so more than most. The media does it too. Ambiguity on this subject reflects a candidate who has only a vague idea what to do about Iraq. When she gets elected, she will make up policy as she goes. That is what her campaign is asking the voters to support.

    Posted by: Zathras | October 10, 2007 10:54 AM | Report abuse

    As everyone has observed, ambiguity on the campaign trail is a necessary requirement for success. Pick any frontrunner, start drilling down on a given issue and vagueness will spring forth.

    So far, only General Petraeus gets the benefit of the need to be ambiguous.

    Posted by: Judge C. Crater | October 10, 2007 11:13 AM | Report abuse

    No, let's really be fair to her. Clinton thinks the war was right, down deep, and she thought that back when her husband was still president. She said once, in an unguarded moment provoked by a questioner asking her if Bush had fooled her, somewhat testily, that she made up her own mind based on what she knew, and the evidence had been consistent from the first President Bush, all through her husband's term, up to the present vote for war under this President Bush. She may regret saying that now, of course, but it was the truth for a change.
    You watch, I'll make my promise again: come next fall if Iraq is looking good she will be all the way back to remembering her (with Bill's help) passage of a Public Law calling for the overthrow of Saddam's regime and the installation of a democratic government. Suddenly she will remember that it wasn't Bush's idea at all, but hers originally!

    Posted by: Gregg Calkins | October 10, 2007 11:16 AM | Report abuse

    Perhaps Mr Dobbs ought to consider renaming this column "The Consistent Rhetoric Checker". I must admit, I am puzzled by the inconsistent willingness to make the Pinocchio call.

    Posted by: david | October 10, 2007 11:20 AM | Report abuse

    Dear Washinton Post, who,s kidding who here? If she and the rest of them didn,t talk they way they do, what would you guys and gals write about? The only thing black & white in America is the paper! It,s like asking you, Hey what are you going to write about tommorow? The one thing you can be sure of about is she,s a women and for you that,s has to be hard because she might become president and that,s not normal for the press. So don,t go to far off the deep end when it come to a female president it just might be a good think. Why dog her like a male?

    Posted by: Mike | October 10, 2007 11:32 AM | Report abuse

    Thank you, Post!!! Because of today's Clinton interview, we also know that she's comfortable with torture. If you do a Fact Check on her being the change candidate, surely she'd get four Pinocchios.

    Posted by: GordonsGirl | October 10, 2007 11:42 AM | Report abuse

    Hillary Clinton's position on the war is what the majority of Americans want it to be and that is not a bad one.

    The reality as she says is that we cannot guarentee having all troops out by a specific date and in the last Democratic debate both Edwards and Obama agreed with her.

    The reality is that how George Bush handled this war is a travesty. He did nothing right. But that is not Hillary's fault or even John Edwards who both voted to give him the right to go to war.

    It is also not something that Obama can do much about as his votes since he has been in the Senate have mirrored Hillary's votes.

    This is a Bush war as Hillary has said and she will work to extricate us and has the best understanding of how to do that. But when she talks of the reality of our having interests in the area that is true. Also we cannot just abandon the Iraqi people after we created chaos in their country. We need to leave in a planned and phased way.

    Hillary has been the most consistant Democratic candidate on this issue. She has a strong thought out position and has refused to say what she will do two years from now as President becasue she doesn't know what the situation on the ground will be then. Anyone who says they can know shouldn't be trusted with the Presidency.

    Posted by: peter | October 10, 2007 11:45 AM | Report abuse

    I'm so tired of nonsense about how we'd have to put our troops back in there in two years if we withdrew now, how the one thing we cannot tolerate is for Iraq to become a haven for terrorists, etc.

    Hey, beltway dudes: Islamic terrorists have all of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa to work with. It doesn't matter whether or not they have Iraq as well. The proper response to this threat is not military intervention, but playing a better defense at home. That would also be an effective strategy for dealing with the non-Islamic terrorists, of which we have plenty in this country.

    Give it up, Iraq is good for nothing except oil.

    Posted by: Anonymous | October 10, 2007 12:46 PM | Report abuse

    As a Clinton supporter, I think this is pretty fair. I agree with one poster here, who reminded us that the three front-runners would not PLEDGE to have troops out by 2012, and so the media ran with telling the American people that they all said the troops would NOT be out by 2012.
    This analyzation avoids that kind of baloney, thank goodness.
    Iraq was a mistake, is a mistake, and will be a mistake. I agree with most military people that this is probably the biggest strategic blunder in US foreign policy in the last 40 years.

    That being said, there are NO GOOD ANSWERS. But the Democrats are at least where the American people are -- impatient with The Worst Commander in Chief Ever, but really having no power over what this mess will look like when The Decider leaves office.

    The Pinocchios are a bit childish, but I guess we're trying to have fun.

    By the way, for the poster who warns us how bad it will be if we leave -- you have NO idea.
    NONE of us do.
    Bush has lied from the very beginning, and the fact that HE'S the one predicting disaster doesn't fly with me whatsoever. I'll go with the advice of Wes Clark, one of our nation's BEST strategic military planners. But who can give strategic advice yet, when we unfortunately still have an idiot at the helm.

    Posted by: Jan | October 10, 2007 1:14 PM | Report abuse

    While there may be "many interests" for U.S. in Middle East, Hillary's policies are dictated by one major concern, maintaining support of the politically powerful Israel lobby and NY media!

    Hillary's vote for the war and last week's vote on Iran leave no doubt where Hillary stands, and it is not with the American people!

    Posted by: dgward44 | October 10, 2007 3:16 PM | Report abuse

    The Clinton's famous triangulation is alive and well.
    This is one democrat I refuse to vote for as she never gives a straight answer to even simple questions and this leaves me uneasy and very suspicious. Especially when she has gone around the country sidestepping her iraq vote and now has voted basically to give Bush permission for war with Iran. her victim's lament of I didn't know may have worked on the gullible regarding Iraq but, I cannot possibly see how anyone can overlook her famous lack of judgment on this vote with iran.
    I suggest any democrat who wants an end to the over militarism of the republicans to end, the spying on us and torture to stop, to chose from our other, more superior candidates and pass on Hillary who tends towards a more republican lite ideology.

    Posted by: vwcat | October 10, 2007 5:48 PM | Report abuse

    Today we have a present who never changes his mind no matter what the circumstances.

    Is that how you want us to vote again?

    Posted by: Pinochio vs. the Pupet Master | October 10, 2007 7:12 PM | Report abuse

    Only Richardson gets it on Iraq. He understands the essential truth about the U.S. intervention in Iraq today: "Our troops in Iraq are now the biggest obstacle to political change."

    This is where Clinton, Obama and Edwards fall gravely short on Iraq. They lack this fundamental insight. While they call for an end to the war in their stump speeches, when directly questioned each refuses to commit to bringing our troops home when they become President. They say our withdrawal depends upon the situation in Iraq when they become President. Moreover, they leave open the possibility that our troops will be stationed in Iraq until 2013.

    Clinton in particular is playing a "game of dodgeball" on Iraq. She speaks of the need to "begin to end the war" yet will continue our military mission in Iraq.

    Posted by: Stephen Cassidy | October 10, 2007 7:22 PM | Report abuse

    I object to your constant referral to HC as the front-runner even as you illustrate why she would be an inferior candidate. If she takes a position at all it is one of continual obfuscation. As far as I know the election is many months away and most states in the nation are still relegated to the sidelines. How about just measured reporting and not just repeating this nonsense...isn't that how we got into the Iraq mess to begin with? Stop it already.

    Posted by: Franki | October 10, 2007 7:59 PM | Report abuse

    While some claim Hillary's ambiguous position is merely a shrewd campaign move to give here wiggle room and allow voters and interest groups to read their own agendas into her plan, I think there is an additional factor.

    I think the democrats have essentially adopted Bush's raison d'etre. The democrats will not leave Iraq when they take office. They will stay there and attempt to rule the middle east from the huge Baghdad embassy now under construction cost overruns.

    Democrats are merely using public discontent with the Iraq war to get elected. Once in office, the Middle East policy will be Bush Lite. Until, at some point, reality will finally assert itself some years and many billions of dollars down the road.

    Posted by: rphilips | October 10, 2007 10:53 PM | Report abuse

    Recently (On Lehuer report) Edwards stated--If elected--I will order all our troops out of Iraq in the first year.
    If Hillary gets to be president, USrael will be the laughing stock of the planet.No wonder the neo/old-coons are funding and supporting her and Pelosie. AIPAC agents :-(

    Posted by: jojo {:-( | October 11, 2007 9:49 AM | Report abuse

    I think it doesn't matter what Hillary says. In the end, the supposed ever changing, say and do anything for power and control chameleon will be supported by every democrat. Despite the incredibly monster(ative) length her schnoz has grown further too by then...hardly one democrat will stand against her.

    Posted by: kbevans | October 11, 2007 10:36 AM | Report abuse

    I think it doesn't matter what Rudy says. In the end, the supposed ever changing, say and do anything for power and control chameleon will be supported by every republican. Despite the incredibly monster(ative) length his schnoz has grown further too by then...hardly one republican will stand against him.

    Posted by: judgeccrater | October 11, 2007 11:09 AM | Report abuse

    The judge simply says that evidence does not toatlly support some of Mr.Gore's points. He does not say that evidence disputes Mr. Gore's points. With the stakes so extreme I believe it safe to err on the side of Mr. Gore. If he is wrong and we try to decrease greenhouse gasses, pollution ,etc. the planet will suffer no harm. But, if he is right and we do nothing, the consequences will be disastrous.

    Posted by: Kreg | October 12, 2007 12:21 PM | Report abuse

    In the articles on Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, the men are referred to by their last names, while Sen. Clinton is several times called just "Hillary." Enough of this sexism.

    Posted by: Bettona | October 12, 2007 1:03 PM | Report abuse

    Who might be so naive to expect the direct and MEANINGFUL answer from Mrs. Clinton? Her strength is just the opposite: Never be direct, never be loyal to anyone, but herself, and most of all, her own overwhelming greed for power, no matter what, and no matter how. This is her engine, as it was, is, and always would be. Go to to find out more.

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    Posted by: Vosypoickiply | December 28, 2007 4:02 PM | Report abuse

    I agree that she never gives a straight answer most of the time. She's always talking about "change!" Well, okay, tell us what you're going to change, what are you going to do? And please try not to lie to us. The war does need to end, it's senseless. I've had marines look me in the eye and say, "It's all about oil." Like many say, if you support the war, you need to go fight it instead of rooting for it and then running and hiding to let others fight it. I'd rather have Barack Obama for president than Hilary. I think most men who're planning on voting for her need to realize that she's, first and foremost, a female superemacist. She's even had to explain some of the comments she's made about men. I think the fact checker would find that Hilary's record indicates that she's hardly ever lived up to any of her promises and has had a political record full of scams and scandals.
    I sure don't wanna see another republican in there, they've done enough. George Bush is one of the worst tyrants to ever rule a nation, he acts as a king rather than as a servant of the people. He won't do a thing the people say, when the constitution binds him by law to do so!!!!!

    Posted by: Marcus | January 7, 2008 3:53 AM | Report abuse

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