Hillary Clinton's 'Wicked' Iraq Problem

Richard Drew/AP

As the situation in Iraq deteriorates with no clear solution, Hillary Clinton faces the prospect of entering a presidential campaign with three unsettled global conflicts on which she'll be politically vulnerable from the right, left, or both.

That's a dilemma for a potential candidate who just wrote a 650-page book detailing her accomplishments helming American foreign policy, putting yet another asterisk on a record that should be her biggest strength.

On Russia, there's Clinton's mistranslated and—conservatives say—misconceived "reset button." On Syria, her early support for air strikes revived liberal concern about her self-described "bias towards action," recalling her vote for the Iraq War in 2002 that stymied her last presidential ambitions. She recently apologized for the vote in her new book.

Now on Iraq, she finds herself in a familiar and uncomfortable position between a war-weary Democratic Party on one side and hawkish Republicans eager to paint her as weak on the other. She's tried to thread this needle before and it didn't work well.

"The current crisis in Iraq is a reminder of the dangers Hillary Clinton faces with the Democratic base," said Stephen Miles of the progressive group Win without War. "Today, with the threat of military action once again on the table in Iraq, … we'll be looking to see if her recent denunciation of her 2002 vote for the Iraq War represents a true change of heart or was simply an effort to rewrite history in advance of a 2016 run."

At the same time, it didn't take long after Islamist insurgents made rapid gains in Iraq last week for Republicans to blame the Obama administration's push to withdraw American troops from the country.

"A policy of weakness and accommodation that came from the Obama and Hillary Clinton team is one that's led to very serious and negative results," said Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, on Fox News. "There's almost not a place in the world that's better off because of [Clinton's] leadership in the State Department."

It's not fair to blame President Obama or Clinton entirely for the lack of U.S. troops in Iraq, since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to sign the Status of Forces treaty needed to maintain a military presence. But as America's top diplomat during the failed negotiations, Clinton's role is sure to be scrutinized.

In an October 2011 interview with CNN, the then-secretary of State downplayed the importance of keeping troops in Iraq, saying American forces would still have plenty of capacity to deal with situations that might arise. "We have a lot of presence in that region," Clinton said. "In addition to a very significant diplomatic presence in Iraq, which will carry much of the responsibility for dealing with an independent sovereign democratic Iraq, we have bases in neighboring countries."

Some analysts predicted al-Maliki's crackdown on the Sunni minority in the country would revive a dormant insurgency, but on Thursday, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton said the insurgents' success was unforeseeable. "I could not have predicted, however, the extent to which ISIS could be effective in seizing cities in Iraq and trying to erase boundaries to create an Islamic state. That's why it's a wicked problem," she said.

Voters will have to debate that one, to determine if it's a satisfactory answer for someone who likely wants to be commander in chief.

ISIS's rise in Iraq may have no American policy solution, and for Clinton, that makes it an equally "wicked" problem politically. Liberals like House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi have less than zero appetite for wading back into the quagmire, while only 38 percent of Americans think the Iraq War was worth its costs to begin with, according to a March 2013 ABC News/Washington Post poll.

On the other hand, under pressure from the likes of Romney and McCain, Clinton can expect to be asked a lot about Iraq in coming days, and she'll have to find an answer strong enough to fit someone who titled her memoir Hard Choices.

Of course, Iraq is an old problem for Clinton. Heading into the 2008 presidential campaign, she tried to atone for her vote in favor by becoming one of the Senate's more vocal antiwar voices, opposing the surge and voting to block it in a bill that didn't gain cloture. Later, she said that while the increased troops had helped improve security temporarily, the surge ultimately "failed" in its broader goals.

In a different move that now looks more prescient, she in August of 2007 called on the Iraqi Parliament to replace al-Maliki with "a less divisive and more unifying figure," prompting an angry response from the leader.

Now, her response to the situation in the country is dependent on the man who wielded her Iraq policy against her six years ago. As a Democrat and one of Obama's top foreign-policy officials, the strength of her foreign policy record—and by extension, her raison d'etre for a White House bid—rides on the success of Obama's.

The addition of yet another "wicked" problem to his docket, even one he may not bear responsibility for creating and solving, doesn't help.

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