By traveling to Dubai, just a few hundred miles from the combat zone, to denounce the American in volvement in Iraq as a "big mistake," Bill Clinton has made a big mistake of his own.
Normally, a top leader of the Democratic Party and the spouse of a presidential candidate can and should feel free to say anything he chooses. But a former president of the United States should be more careful before he tells hundreds of thousands of young men and women, many of whom served under him, that they are risking their lives for a mistake.
To do it in the Arab world compounds the error. His denunciation of our war effort so close to the spots where our troops are fighting summons memories of Jane Fonda.
Yes, Clinton's attacks were highly specific. He praised getting rid of Saddam, but criticized President Bush for being overly optimistic about how easy it would be to leave Iraq afterward. He also attacked the administration for not leaving the "fundamental military and social and police structure intact." Really? That infrastructure killed, tortured, maimed and mutilated hundreds of thousands of people. Should President Harry Truman have left the Gestapo in place?
Moreover, Clinton knew that the sound bite that would emerge was "big mistake" a remark far outside the normal bounds of criticism of a president by one of his predecessors.
But there's another, all too familiar, concern here Bill Clinton, blurring his roles as political advantage dictates.
Is he the husband of the 2008 White House frontrunner, predicting that his wife would be a better president than he was? Sometimes. Is he the former president rising above party to join former President George H. W. Bush in appealing for aid for victims of tsunamis and hurricanes? Often. Is he the partisan critic, the nation's chief Democrat, slashing away at administration policy and rallying the faithful on the left? Increasingly.
When he travels to Israel, is he the ex-president bringing his wife along on an almost official visit to our chief Middle Eastern ally, or is he the husband of the candidate trotting along for photo ops? He's both with not a care over the conflicts of interest.
It's a potent combo. His support for his wife carries weight because he is a former president; his attacks on Bush are important because he is the husband of the likely Democratic nominee in 2008; his quasi-ceremonial role as a former president gains bite because he still commands massive support in his party as its leader.
Indeed, we have not had a popular ex-president running around criticizing a less favored incumbent since Theodore Roosevelt did it in 1912 against President William Howard Taft. And, of course, we have never had a candidate's spouse assume such a role.
Hillary Clinton has her own version of this blurring alternately embracing and shunning her husband's record.
When the senator boasts of the job creation and balanced budget of her husband's tenure, she's arrogating these accomplishments to her own resume. But she's nowhere to be seen as evidence emerges that U.S. intelligence knew that Mohammed Atta was a man to watch in the late 1990s and that we had indications of suicide hijackings of passenger aircraft but did nothing to modify our air-safety system.
Finally, Bill and Hillary are playing a pas-de-deux, in satisfying both the left and the center of the Democratic Party. For the first time in their careers, they can really be all things to all people Hillary, a hawk voting for the war; Bill, a dove blasting the decision to wage it.
Should the elections in Iraq really turn the corner and give that nation a working democracy and America a way out of Baghdad, Hillary can always say she was there from the beginning. But should the casualties only mount, she can join Bill on his leftist perch.
Eileen McGann co-authored this piece