Three years ago, during an appearance on CBS, Sen. Hillary Clinton stated that she agreed with the overarching premise of John McCain's Iraq policy: that America's commitment to the war shouldn't be based on time frames but rather on the level of troop casualties. She even cited, as McCain now regularly does, that the United States would be well suited to follow a model for troop presence based on South Korea, Japan, or Germany.
"Senator McCain made the point earlier today, which I agree with, and that is, it's not so much a question of time when it comes to American military presence for the average American; I include myself in this. But it is a question of casualties," said Clinton. "We don't want to see our young men and women dying and suffering these grievous injuries that so many of them have. We've been in South Korea for 50-plus years. We've been in Europe for 50-plus. We're still in Okinawa with respect to protection there coming out of World War II."
Three years and many casualties later, Clinton insists, unequivocally, that American troops should be brought home at a rate of one to two brigades a month over the course of 16 months, and that a residual force be left to deal with national security issues. Asked recently if, as president, she would stick to that plan even if conditions on the ground suggested the need for an armed U.S. presence, Howard Wolfson offered a definitive, "yes." Asked to discuss the 2005 remarks, Phil Singer, another Clinton spokesman, told The Huffington Post:
"As both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have noted, the situation in Iraq has dramatically deteriorated since 2005 and now we are in the midst of sectarian violence. While she has always supported a limited number of residual forces to protect our embassy and go after terrorists, unlike Senator McCain, Senator Clinton will start bringing our troops home when she is President and end the war."
While his shift is not as stark, Sen. Barack Obama has also moved towards a more aggressive anti-Iraq war position since announcing his intention to run for the Oval Office. Shortly after entering Congress, for instance, he said he "believed that U.S. forces are still a part of the solution in Iraq." He told the Chicago Tribune in July of 2004, that "There's not much of a difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage." His voting record since becoming a senator, moreover, has been almost identical to Clinton's.
In fact, observers note, the transformation of both Clinton and -- to a lesser extent -- Obama's war criticism is not simply a product of their White House bids, but also a political and public opinion shift that took place over the past few years.
"The public made a decision over the course of 2006 that we weren't winning. And I think what happened with U.S political support for the war, as the public came to the impression that things weren't going well, casualties started looking like squandered lives and support started drying up," said Steve Biddle, a senior fellow for defense at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Nevertheless, Clinton's appearance on CBS does provide a telling window into just how long a road she has traveled on the issue of Iraq.
Indeed, her initial vote to authorize the war has been hammered by Obama throughout the primary. And around the time of her CBS interview, Clinton was dismissing the efficacy of a troop withdrawal plan that she now supports.
"We don't want to send a signal to the insurgents, to the terrorists that we are going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain," she said on Meet The Press, during an appearance with McCain. "I think that would be like a green light to go ahead and just bide your time. We want to send a message of solidarity. And in addition, I would hope that at this point now, we could get more international support. It is not in anyone's interests, not, you know, the people in this region, in Europe or elsewhere around the world, for the Iraqi government to be brought down before it even can get itself together by violent insurgents. So it's not only a U.S. commitment, I think and hope that there should be commitment from others as well."
Three years later, Clinton has, seemingly, done a 180. How to explain the evolution? For starters, when she appeared on Face the Nation she had just traveled to Iraq and witnessed the country's first election - a process deemed by many observers, though not war critics, as a key turning point in America's mission. In addition, while there were unacceptable levels of violence in the country at the time, there was not yet then an overwhelming consensus that Iraq had descended into civil war.
Nevertheless the difference between her 2005 remarks and those on the campaign trail are stark. So much so, that recently she criticized McCain for pursuing a long-term presence in Iraq and touted herself as the lone candidate who can end the war, all in one statement.
"Sen. [Barack] Obama holds up his original opposition to the war on the campaign trail, but he didn't start working aggressively to end the war until he started running for president. So when he had a chance to act on his speech, he chose silence instead," Clinton told an audience at George Washington University. "President Bush is determined to continue his failed policy in Iraq until he leaves office. And Sen. [John] McCain will gladly accept the torch and stay the course, keeping troops in Iraq for up to 100 years if necessary."