Dan Feldman, a National Security Council director under former President Bill Clinton, called the trip a "great PR stunt ... yet another in a long line of photo ops that don't say anything concrete about improving security and what our long-term plans are." [Emph. added]
How was Bush's trip just a "great PR stunt" (using Iraq "as his stage") and Hillary Clinton's trip not just a less-great PR stunt using Iraq as her stage? Both politicians met with Iraqis as well as American troops. Both discussed substance. The difference is that Bush has a central role in the actual decision-making structure while Hillary's trip was a classic self-promotional effort by one of 100 senators. ... And, pace Howard Owens, there was something unseemly about Clinton's inability to refrain from sniping at Bush until she returned home. It's not that she violated the hoary bit of etiquette that says a U.S. politician should never criticize a U.S. president on foreign soil. I've never completely understood that rule. If Hillary had gone to Iraq and flat-out blasted Bush, that would have been fine by me. The problem is she smarmily wanted to have it both ways, pretending her trip was in part a morale-building visit to the troops ("I wanted to come to Iraq to let the troops know about the great job they're doing") while she griped about the mission the troops were on. Here's a home state paper account:
The morale of the troops, she said, "is very high," but she said the military personnel with whom she spoke in meetings and during "two turkey dinners" wanted to know "how the people at home feel about what we are doing."
" "Americans are wholeheartedly proud of what you are doing,' " Clinton said she replied, " "but there are many questions at home about the (Bush) administration's policies.' "
Update: Howard Owens and Bill Herbert take issue with the above post, largely on the grounds that a) what Hillary said was accurate--there are "many questions" at home and b) "military people aren't too fragile to be given straight talk" or to hear Hillary's criticisms of current U.S. policies. All true, but that's not the point. Even if military people are quite strong enough to hear antiwar criticism, surely at some point that criticism, however frankly expressed, can't be portrayed as morale building. If you went to Iraq and told the troops, say, that they were doing the bidding of Halliburton and imposing alien Western values in a way calculated to increase terrorism directed at Americans, that might be admirable "straight talk" but would be hard to honestly portray as letting "the troops know about the great job they're doing."
That's not the anti-Bush criticism Hillary made, of course. But what she did say struck me as neither as supportive nor as honest as it should have been. It would be one thing to tell the troops, "We're all proud of you, though there are many questions at home about whether we are withdrawing too fast or too slow, or becoming bogged down." It's another to say there are "many questions about the administration'spolicies." The first is the perspective of a citizen. The second is the perspective of a Democratic partisan. The first says that we're all in this together and we're all worried and we can disagree on how to do it and this is how I would improve things. The second says "this isn't America's policy, it's Bush's policy." It implies that whenever a policy comes in for criticism from voters, Hillary--who voted for the war, after all--will disavow any connection to it. This search for partisan advantage carried over into Hillary's other criticisms of Bush. Here, in particular, is a news report with Clinton comments Bill Herbert says are "constructive":
As she has on each leg of her three-day trip, Clinton questioned the White House battle plan for restoring order and stability to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's going to take more time than has been allotted for the process to take hold," said Clinton, referring to the July deadline by which Bush aims to transfer power back to the struggling Iraqis.
"I don't think we should be setting artificial timelines as this is a very challenging undertaking and we need to work with our Iraqi counterparts and make sure that the steps that are being taken are going to work," added Clinton, who is due back in Washington today. [Emphasis added.]
It seems to me this is not constructive. It's almost entirely a partisan cheap shot. "Artificial timelines" can be very useful, both in forcing action and making it clear that something --i.e., the transfer of sovereignty--will happen. I think Hillary knows this. The Bush administration is clearly struggling with the need for a quick transition, on the one hand, and the need for "the process to take hold" on the other. I think Hillary knows this too. If the process hasn't taken hold by next June, the Bushies may let the deadline slip--and Hillary knows that. But in the meantime, denouncing the "artificial" quality of the timeline is a nice, safe criticism for Hillary to make, along with all her other safe third-order process-criticisms of the war. If Bush hadn't set out a timeline, don't you think Hillary would be criticizing him for that--'We have no clear plan for restoring Iraq, no timeline. We are just muddling ahead,' etc? Hillary's criticism isn't a real criticism or an honest criticism, it's a strategic, partisan criticism, and it's the sort of un-straight talk she should drop when she's talking to the troops in a war zone.
I should add that until Hillary's Iraq trip, I--like many Democrats surveying the current presidential candidates--had been feeling strange new respect for her. Now I remember why I used to loathe her. ...