06/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It Was Iraq, Stupid

In the dozens of postmortems that have already been written about Hillary Clinton's failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the dozens more undoubtedly about to be written in the wake of last night's final primaries, one reason for her surprising fall from inevitability has been consistently downplayed (or least forgotten): a little thing called Iraq.

It hasn't been talked about much lately, what with so many more important things on the national media's radar screen like church sermons and bitter gun owners, but in case you've forgotten: in 2002 Clinton voted to give George W. Bush the power to wage unlimited war in the Middle East. Of course, so did 28 other Democratic senators. But Hillary compounded her original bad decision by playing her husband's brand of 1990's style triangulation politics with the issue. This cynical and, thankfully, mistaken tactic cost her much more than her off-the-cuff musings about RFK's assassination or Mark Penn's idiotic big state strategy.

Back in what feels like ancient history before the Iowa Caucuses, Iraq was still a major topic in the Democratic race. John Edwards, when asked about his own vote to authorize the war, donned the political equivalent of sackcloth and ashes and performed numerous public mea culpas for it. But Hillary, swaddled as she was at that time in the mantle of inevitability, stubbornly refused to admit that she too had made a mistake. Instead she tried to have it both ways -- blaming Bush for "misleading" her about his intentions and bungling the prosecution of the occupation but never taking personal responsibility for her own role in allowing it to happen.

This strategy was a classic Clintonian ploy, obviously geared towards a general election with the Republican nominee. In the 1990's Bill Clinton pulled the rug out from under the GOP numerous times by simply adopting, or at least parroting, their positions. When Newt Gingrich's welfare "reform" initiative was gathering steam, Bill neutralized its political viability by co-opting it. Hillary wanted to use Iraq in the same way. By playing the unrepentant hawk, she hoped to immunize herself from Republican attacks that she was soft on defense. But this is not the 1990s.

And the war in Iraq is not even remotely close to welfare reform or any other partisan slap fight of the last several decades. It's the most disastrous foreign policy decision since Vietnam. Not just because it's killed hundreds of thousands and ruined the lives of millions more. Not just because it's going to cost $3 trillion. But because it just might be the most immoral thing this country has ever done.

If you think I'm exaggerating, read Deborah Campbell's stunning piece "Exodus" in the April edition of Harper's (unfortunately, subscription only). Campbell's depiction of the plight of some of the millions of Iraqis forced to flee their country's ethnic and sectarian violence is truly heartbreaking -- all the more so in light Scott McClellan's recent revelation that George Bush opened this Pandora's Box of horror and bloodshed because he thought a war was the best way to burnish his presidential legacy. To top it all off, as Campbell points out, Bush's State Department has issued fewer visas to displaced Iraqis than Sweden has done -- because to help the very people we've displaced with our reckless and incompetent occupation would be an admission that their suffering is real and that we have caused it.

That Clinton would dare to try to spin or soft peddle such a disgraceful, morally repugnant history to her political advantage is contemptible at best, unforgivable at worst. She should have renounced her yes vote emphatically long before the presidential primary season even began. But she didn't. And that was, or at least it should have been, a deal breaker.

John McCain and virtually every other major GOP politician have aided and abetted George Bush's botched war from the start. The only way we could have avoided this disaster was for Democrats to stop fretting about their poll numbers back in 2002 and act like a true opposition party. They failed that test. And Hillary continued to fail it for five and a half more years -- until she realized she had to move "left" to keep her flagging chances for the nomination alive. But the move came too little, too late. And I say thank goodness for that. Let's hope her defeat signals an end to the kind of craven politicization of war that led us into Iraq and, sadly, will keep us there for god knows how much longer.