- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
A friend with a better memory than mine had an interesting reaction to my post about Secretary Clinton’s opposition to an artificial timeline to end the Afghan surge. He said it reminded him of an earlier episode in 2007 involving timelines, the Iraq surge, and then-Senator Clinton.
Back then, Congressional Democrats were vigorously opposed to the Iraq surge, and were mounting a coordinated effort designed to block it, thwart it, or at the very least bring it to an early end. Politico called it a "slow bleed" strategy, because it involved trying to hobble the surge with all sorts of restrictions that might have a superficial appeal but that had knowable secondary effects that would undermine the surge.
One of those restrictions was getting the Bush administration to announce a timeline for ending the surge, which Congress could then use as a device to lock in an Iraqi withdrawal. The Bush administration did not want to establish such a public timeline in 2007, while the surge was still unfolding, and instead promised to unwind the surge at a pace based on conditions on the ground.
This promise was not good enough for Congressional Democrats, and one of them, Senator Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the Department of Defense demanding that it release internal analyses and plans that considered various alternative timelines. Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman wrote back:
"Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia… Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks."
Senator Clinton angrily claimed that this response was "impugning the patriotism of any of us who raise serious questions" about the way the administration was running the Iraq war. Clinton’s letter was remarkably ad hominem in its attacks on Edelman, alleging he had his "priorities backward" and calling his claim that withdrawal talk would embolden the enemy "outrageous and dangerous."
In the light of this 2007 episode, now-Secretary Clinton’s views on the Afghan surge timeline are all the more remarkable and newsworthy. Here, according to David Sanger, are her views today:
"Clinton thought [the deadline to start pulling the surge troops back out] was a mistake and still does; an internal deadline would have been fine, she believed, but a public one simply telegraphed to the Taliban and the Pakistanis when the United States would be leaving. The Taliban read the newspapers too, she pointed out.
In the end her concern — also voiced by Gates — seems prescient. The effort to explore the possibility of ‘reconciliation’ talks with the Taliban sputtered along in low gear for years. It is impossible to know for certain how the pullout plan affected the Taliban’s calculations, but interviews with Taliban taken prisoner by NATO suggested that the insurgents knew time was on their side, and they were simply waiting for the Americans to begin a significant withdrawal.
In other words, according to Sanger, Secretary Clinton opposed announcing the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline for the very same reasons that she denounced as "outrageous and dangerous" earlier as a Senator.
Secretary Clinton has been a comparative bright spot in the Obama administration, and so I bring up past performance with some reluctance lest it impugn future success. Comparing these two surge timeline debates probably says more about the quality of politics five years ago than it does about the quality of her contribution to Obama policymaking today.
And I cannot disprove the hypothesis that Clinton’s simply views evolved in the interval. Perhaps she sincerely believed in the wisdom of public timelines in 2007 and changed her mind in ensuing years; perhaps she sincerely believed that raising concerns about those timelines was tantamount to questioning one’s patriotism in 2007 and has a different view today. (I reject absolutely the notion that in raising doubts about the Afghan surge timeline she was seeking to impugn the patriotism of those in the Obama administration, most notably the president himself, who wanted it.)
Yet I think it is more likely that Senator Clinton was pursuing a partisan agenda in 2007, whereas Secretary Clinton today is motivated more by weightier concerns about the overall success of the Afghan mission.
If so, then wouldn’t it be laudable if Secretary Clinton offered an apology to Edelman?
Even if no such gracious gesture is forthcoming, Republicans can benefit if they take to heart the central lesson of this little morality tale: positions that look appealing when one is sitting on the political opposition benches can look appalling when one is sitting in the Oval Office.