Did Hillary Duck a Sucker Punch?

Last March, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia introduced a bill to insist that President Bush get congressional authorization if he wanted to attack Iran. A few of Webb's fellow Democrats, including Sen. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, praised the idea. Still, no one signed on as a cosponsor. One reason: if it ever came to a vote—and failed—Bush could feel emboldened as he bullied his way into war with Iran. The bill languished in obscurity until last week, when Webb got his first and only cosponsor: the Democratic presidential front runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was evidently in too much of a hurry to give Webb the customary senatorial heads-up. "I found out after she announced it," he said, laughing. Why now? It's called protection—in this case, from her antiwar left flank.

If Clinton was suddenly anxious about Iran, she had good reason to feel that way—and so do her fellow Democrats. Most analysts, including Webb, agree Iran is a greater threat to security than Iraq ever was. And most Democratic presidential candidates say a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an unacceptable risk. At the same time, however, Democrats feel that they were played for suckers in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Many of them listen with distrust, if not outright disgust, as the administration trots out arguments and evidence that sound eerily like those used to justify a misbegotten and mismanaged war. "We've got to get Iran right—for the country's sake and our own," says Democratic Sen. Robert Casey Jr., a moderate from Pennsylvania.

How to get it right? The search is dividing the party and generating sparks among the top presidential contenders. Last spring, Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Chris Dodd supported a measure for economic sanctions against Iran and asked the State Department to brand the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (the Iranian Army) a "terrorist organization." That wasn't enough for anti-Iran hawks, who insisted Congress take the unprecedented step of making the "terrorist" designation itself. And so the Senate did. Clinton—but not Biden, Dodd or Obama—joined 29 other Democrats in voting "aye." The aim, she said, was to "put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran."

By nature, and now as a front runner, Clinton would rather issue diplomatic communiqués than take one side. Iran may be her toughest challenge. She figured she had her bases covered. Last February—before Webb introduced his bill —she gave a speech in which she conceded the Iranian threat. She also warned Bush not to view earlier congressional votes empowering him to fight terrorism (after 9/11 and before the war in Iraq) as inherent authority to attack Iran.

But her vote on the Revolutionary Guard measure—sponsored by the Senate's hawkish, sort-of Democrat, Joe Lieberman—has given scholars and bloggers in the antiwar netroots fodder; labeling the Iranian Army a terrorist organization, they say, gives Bush the excuse he needs to attack. "It could be read as tantamount to a declaration of war," says Webb. Among the 3.3 million members of Moveon.org, Iran last week replaced Iraq as the top issue, says its president, Eli Pariser. Win Without War, the leading Iraq antiwar coalition, is planning to shift focus to Iran.

Clinton's foes used her vote as an opportunity to berate her. "I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on the road to war in Iran," said former senator John Edwards, staring at her as he spoke at the Democrats' recent debate at Dartmouth. "I'm ashamed of you, Hillary," growled former senator Mike Gravel. In response, she smiled her imperturbable smile, but her staff swung into action. Within days she'd decided to partner with Webb, whether he knew it or not. In this case the medium was the message: she put out the word first on the Internet.