At Wednesday’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” hosted by Matt Lauer on NBC, the two major party candidates clashed on a number of topics, but none more so than their past positions on the Iraq War. Donald Trump asserted that he had opposed the war from the outset (“I was totally against the war in Iraq”) while Hillary Clinton accused him of lying about his position, stating:
“I have taken responsibility for my decision,” Clinton said. “He refuses to take responsibility for his support – that is a judgment issue.
No follow-up question was asked, prompting outrage from Clinton-supporting talking heads in the media and writers like Matthew Yglesias of Vox (or VOX as I like to call it in reference to its obvious bias). Dissatisfied with the way Matt Lauer conducted the presidential forum, they argued the host should have called out Trump for saying he did not support the war.
In truth, though Mr. Trump said that he supported the war once in 2002 during an interview with Howard Stern, his position was non-committal at best. When Stern asked if he supported the war, his response was, “Yeah, I guess so.”
By 2004, the GOP nominee had completely come out against the war, as he told Esquire in August of that year:
Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the country? C’mon. Two minutes after we leave, there’s going to be a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over…
What was the purpose of this whole thing? Hundreds and hundreds of young people killed. And what about the people coming back with no arms and legs? Not to mention the other side. All those Iraqi kids who’ve been blown to pieces. And it turns out that all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing!
On the other side, Clinton maintained her support for the war well into the next decade, though she did offer criticisms as early as 2003 about the way the Bush administration was handling the effort. In 2008 it became one of Barack Obama’s greatest lines of attack against her. It was not until her 2014 book, Hard Choices, which followed her failed presidential bid, that Clinton called her ‘yes’ vote which she cast “with conviction,” a “mistake,” let alone offered up regret for casting it.
The motivation for this change of heart is also suspect given the timing (the 2016 race around the corner) and her proclivity for military intervention. For example, Mrs. Clinton was the driving force behind U.S. actions in Libya, and, according to inside sources, she does not regret it.
The difference here is that while Clinton was a Senator at the beginning of the war, charged with making actual leadership decisions for the country, Trump was a celebrity – offering opinions consistent with popular sentiment at the time.
In March of 2003, 75 percent of Americans supported war with Iraq. By the time Trump gave his Esquire interview, that number had fallen to about half. At the same time, only one to two percent of Americans had no opinion either way.
To compare Clinton’s and Trump’s culpability for supporting the war in 2003 is unfair, as the former clearly bears the lion’s share of the blame. While celebrities do wield influence over the public, they are not elected leaders; for better or worse they are not held to the same standard.
However, it is appropriate to question Trump’s judgment for going along with popular sentiment at the time. Leadership surely involves taking a more committed stance than “I guess.” Still, one would hope that in staking a position, they take the right one. Clinton steadfastly supported the war in spite of public opinion for over a decade – and her opposition may be politically motivated.
Lauer could have dug deeper into both candidates, the fact is neither candidate really owns this issue. And then, the only reason we care at all about what Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said or did regarding the Iraq War is we want to gauge how they would handle foreign policy as President of the United States.
According to OnTheIssues, the nonpartisan nonprofit which tracks candidates’ positions, Clinton is more hawkish than Trump, in spite of some outlandish statements the latter has made (some of which have shocked some of our allies).
Multilateralism: Hillary accepts the current framework of American engagement with allies around the world; Trump would re-negotiate most of them (but he is not an isolationist, like some Republicans who reject the current international framework).
Mideast intervention: Hillary favors keeping America engaged militarily, while Trump opposes most military action, especially in the Middle East. This reverses the standard party positions: Hillary is more hawkish than Trump.
In Syria in particular – our next potentially big conflict – we see the differences. Mrs. Clinton has called for a full review of the administration’s policies. According to insiders like Jeremy Bash, former Pentagon and CIA chief of staff, “Mrs Clinton believes that problems around the world can more easily be solved when America is involved and in each of those problems or crisis.” In the past Clinton has favored military involvement – arming the rebels as well as airstrikes – and the creation of no-fly zones.
On the other hand, Trump generally favors economic support to create a safe zone. He has hinted at support for airstrikes against ISIS, but he has also said he does not support our military getting “bogged down” in Syria or training rebels, and that he favors Russian involvement.
I don’t trust him [Putin]. But the truth is, it’s not a question of trust. I don’t want to see the United States get bogged down. We’ve spent now $2 trillion in Iraq, probably a trillion in Afghanistan. We’re destroying our country.
As I have said before, this election, barring the very remote chance of a third party upset, comes down to a devil we know and one we do not. This is especially true in terms of foreign policy. Clinton is, at her core, a cringe-worthy militarist, and Trump is an unpromising—and potentially dangerous—wild card.