President Obama's decision to send 450 more American troops to Iraq has put Hillary Clinton in a tough spot. What will she say about the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?
The answer, beyond a few boilerplate remarks, is nothing. There is no topic more radioactive in the Clintonworld psyche than Iraq. Look for her to avoid taking any clear, decisive position, at least for now.
No, it wouldn't be hard for Clinton to stand against Republicans who have denounced Obama's move as an ineffective half-measure -- a "duct tape approach," in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham. Clinton, or at least her surrogate spokesmen, can accuse them of wanting yet another war in Iraq.
It's Clinton's fellow Democrats who are the problem. On the one hand, the White House presents the new deployment of troops as part of an ongoing "train, advise and assist" mission that will help Iraqis fight the Islamic State without the presence of a large number of U.S. ground troops. On the other hand, some Democrats are increasingly worried about "mission creep" in Iraq and will not support Obama's policy.
"I am very concerned about mission creep in Iraq," Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen told MSNBC recently. While Van Hollen said he supports Obama's air war in Iraq, "Putting more U.S. troops on the ground and putting them in harm's way is something that would give me grave, grave concern."
"It represents an escalation ... incremental mission creep," Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern told Politico. "This won't be the last deployment. It will continue to increase."
Another Democrat, Sen. Chris Murphy, is urging Congress to constrain Obama's ability to wage war in Iraq. "I support the president's mission to try to assist in the training of the Iraqi forces, but I'd be much more comfortable in supporting that mission if I knew what the limits of if were," Murphy said on MSNBC. "Congress has to vote next week on a prohibition on the large scale deployment of ground troops, so that that creeping number of hundreds-at-a-time doesn't become a second Iraq war before we have anything to say about it."
So where does that leave Clinton? Very, very quiet. "Just remember this about Hillary," says a Democratic strategist not affiliated with any campaign. "She thinks she'd be finishing her second term in the White House if she'd been right about the war the first time. So she's not going to wander into this eagerly or quickly."
When Clinton is asked about Iraq -- and that might not be for a while, given her avoidance of the press and unscreened voters -- it's not hard to imagine her answering that the president is looking at all the intelligence, that he's making a judgment based on that intelligence, and that she would have to know more to make an informed judgment herself.
That won't satisfy anyone. But Clinton might well decide that suffering a little bad press would be better than taking a strong position and having it blow up in her face.
"Can she avoid taking a stand? Yes," says the strategist. "Will it cause her some damage? Yes. Will she do it anyway? Yes."
Clinton's Democratic opponents won't be so cautious. Both Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley opposed the invasion of Iraq back in 2003. They can both say Clinton was wrong then and is wrong now.
The reason Clinton does not have to respond, at least quickly, is that she currently enjoys a 47.5-point lead over Sanders, and a 56.7-point lead over O'Malley in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Given the caution her campaign has exhibited so far, there's no reason to expect her to engage such a dangerous topic with such a comfortable lead.
Anyone who thinks Clinton won't, or can't, stay away from the subject should ask this question: What is her position on the giant Pacific trade deal currently being negotiated by the Obama administration, a deal about which many Democrats have passionate feelings? She hasn't said.
"This is not a campaign that is taking any risks," says the Democratic strategist. "She'll do nothing for as long as she can get away with it."