Webb to Remind Democrats of Clinton’s Iraq War Support

Jim Webb is unlikely to beat Hillary Clinton, but he could raise some awkward questions.

Former Virginia senator Jim Webb makes a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 28, 2014
Former Virginia senator Jim Webb makes a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 28, 2014 (ALA)

Former Virginia senator Jim Webb said on Thursday he would challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

While unlikely to win, Webb, who is perhaps best known for opposing the now-controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq, could make foreign policy even more of an issue in the race to succeed Barack Obama.

Clinton, the former secretary of state, naturally cites her international experience as a qualification for the highest office — even though her tenure lacked any signature achievements.

Republican candidates, by contrast, attack her as Obama’s heir, predicting that she will continue a foreign policy they argue is defined by cowering to enemies and leaving key allies, like Israel, in the cold.

A Vietnam War veteran who served in the administration of Republican president Ronald Reagan as secretary of the Navy, Webb could bring a more level-headed appreciation of America’s role in the world to the nominating process. During his single term in the United States Senate from 2007 to 2013, he was a prominent opponent of the Iraq War which by then had already claimed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. In 2011, he was among few Democrats who opposed President Obama’s intervention in the Libyan civil war.

The Atlantic Sentinel‘s Daniel R. DePetris writes for Quartz that one of Webb’s strengths is his consistency. As early as 2002, he counseled against adventurism abroad, warning that a war in Iraq would take far more time than George W. Bush Administration officials were suggesting and that well-intentioned American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East could backfire.

Webb wrote in The Washington Post that year that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would only give Iran the opportunity to expand its influence in the Arab world and unleash a wave of sectarian violence.

Clinton supported the war as a senator for New York at the time, a vote that also haunted her when she last sought the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008.

The Bush Administration, for its part, showed no signs of taking Webb’s warnings seriously. But as DePetris points out, “Looking at Webb’s op-ed thirteen years later, you can’t help but see how prescient his concerns.”

Over the last several weeks, Jim Webb has taken pains to remind Americans about that article he wrote in the Post in what is surely an attempt to demonstrate to Democratic and independent voters that he has the patience, knowledge, sense of history and foresight to be the 45th commander-in-chief.

If Webb has one weakness — besides lack of fundraising prowess and running against a wildly popular Clinton — it is his tendency to avoid answering difficult questions.

Webb had no problem opposing his own party leader and president on the war in Libya but when asked recently if he supported Obama’s transatlantic free-trade agreement and nuclear deal with Iran, he was evasive.

DePetris writes it sometimes seems as though Webb is trying to have it both ways.

This is the kind of “flip-floppy” behavior that got Secretary of State John Kerry and Governor Mitt Romney into trouble during their respective bids for the presidency. Jim Webb, as a student of history, would be the first one to recognize this.

Then again, Webb probably isn’t in it to win it. What he might hope to accomplish is to make sure that Democrats don’t ever again get swept up in patriotic euphoria to support a war that was poorly thought-out from the start. Given his military background and service to a Republican president, Webb would be more difficult for neoconservatives to portray as an America-critical defeatist than most Democrats.