Joining the furious debate over withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., rejected calls for an immediate pullout while suggesting Iraq may not be stabilized until the new government is told that the U.S. troop commitment is not open-ended.
Speaking to reporters in Rye Brook, N.Y., on Monday, Clinton recommended that pressure be put on Iraq's new government after the Dec. 15 election.
"Then we have to tell this new government we are not going to be there forever, we are going to be withdrawing our young men and women and we expect you to start moving towards stability," Clinton said.
The former first lady said an immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a "big mistake."
"It will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state the way Afghanistan was, where terrorists are free to basically set up camp and launch attacks against us," she said.
She suggested, however, that Iraq may not be stabilized until the United States signals its intention to leave.
Clinton said the Bush administration's approach amounted to giving the Iraqis "an open-ended invitation not to take care of themselves."
"What you hear from the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense is, 'We'll stay as long as it takes until the job is done,'" Clinton said. "They've never defined the job."
Echoes of Bill Clinton's 'Third Way'?
Clinton's little-noticed comments -- made at a news conference about the flu vaccine -- are the latest sign that the debate over Iraq has shifted in the wake of a call by Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha, a combat veteran with close ties to the military, said last week that the United States had accomplished all that it can in Iraq militarily and that it is time to redeploy troops to the periphery.
Clinton's efforts to fashion a "third way" on Iraq were reminiscent of the political approach her husband made famous when he announced his presidential campaign in 1991. "The change we must make isn't liberal or conservative," Bill Clinton said then. "It's both, and it's different."
"My approach is different," the former first lady and current senator said Monday. "My approach is we tell them we expect you to meet these certain benchmarks and that means getting troops and police officers trained, equipped and ready to defend their people."
"I don't think realistically we know how prepared they are until we get a government on Dec. 15," she added.
After meeting with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan in September, Clinton held firm to her support for the Iraq war, telling The Village Voice, "My bottom line is that I don't want their sons to die in vain."
At the time, Clinton demurred when asked about withdrawing troops. "I don't believe it's smart to set a date for withdrawal. I don't think you should ever telegraph your intentions to the enemy so they can await you."
Clinton continues to oppose setting a specific target date for withdrawal -- a point of contention with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a potential rival for the 2008 nomination, who has called for a flexible "target date" of Dec. 31, 2006, for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq.
But like 39 of her Senate colleagues, she now supports requiring the president to establish a "schedule" so that, in her words, "we can begin to look at how quickly the Iraqi government assumes responsibility for its own security so that we, in turn, can withdraw our troops."
Clinton said Monday that the United States can help stabilize Iraq by agreeing to "hold" and "expand" certain parts of the country. But she indicated that such a move should be done in the context of the new Iraqi government knowing that "we're not going to be there forever."
She also said she does not think the U.S. has the "right combination" of troops on the ground in terms of military specialties.
Clinton, who is running for re-election in 2006, is widely considered to be the front-runner for her party's 2008 presidential nomination, based on her association with the Clinton brand, her fundraising prowess and her institutional support.
Her perceived front-runner status is also built on a perception among some Democratic strategists that her reservoir of goodwill in the Democratic base makes her uniquely capable of appealing to centrists in the general election by running as what former Al Gore spokesman Chris Lehane has dubbed "the American version of Iron Lady Thatcher."
Criticized by Activist Cindy Sheehan
Prior to Clinton's recalibration on Iraq, MoveOn.org's Tom Matzzie disapproved of what the senator had to say. He saw the senator as "supportive of the war without a disagreement with the administration over what direction to go in."
Matzzie, the Washington director of the Web-oriented liberal advocacy group that opposes the Iraq war, was heartened by Clinton's recent comments. He told ABC News that he sees them as a sign that she now recognizes the importance of having "a view on foreign policy that is different from that of the Republicans."
"It will send a signal to progressives that she understands their concerns," he said.
Clinton came to loggerheads with the anti-war movement following her September interview with the Voice. In an open letter written in October, Sheehan complained that Clinton "sounds exactly" like President Bush, Rush Limbaugh and other Republicans.
The anti-war crusader called Clinton a "political animal" who believes she has to be a "war hawk" to "keep up with the big boys."
The Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt reacted to Clinton's recent comments by telling ABC News: "In typical Clintonesque fashion, the senator is trying to have it both ways on a critical issue. There is no room for political calculations when making decisions in the central front of the War on Terror."
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Nick concedes Clinton has "sounded more hawkish" than one might expect while serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But he told ABC News she was "waffling a little bit" under pressure from "the liberal blogs and groups like MoveOn.org."
Nick said he found it "extremely condescending to say to the Iraqi people right now: 'You need to hurry up and get your act together because we're not going to be there forever.'"
"They know that. They get that," Nick said. "These are the people who are risking their lives and volunteering to take part in the Iraqi army and risking their lives to take part in an election."
Clinton's staff denies that she said anything new about Iraq in Rye Brook. Her more candid supporters who are not on her staff acknowledge that her thinking on Iraq appears to be evolving.
They argue, however, that she can successfully fend off GOP critics by saying that her thinking has shifted as that of the professional military has shifted.
There is no unanimity in the U.S. military about what effect the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops would have.
But Clinton defenders point to the recent testimony of Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who said that the large U.S. presence might be playing a role in driving Iraqis to join the insurgency.
"She is reflecting the wisdom of the military and foreign policy community. At some point, the U.S. has to come home," Matzzie said. "We might as well start talking about it."
Teddy Davis is an ABC News field producer and co-author of The Note. He covers politics for the network's television, radio and Internet platforms.