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."
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."