Hillary's Military Offensive

This summer, the reserve Officers Association presented Sen. Hillary Clinton with its President's Award for her work on behalf of soldiers. On the morning of the ceremony, the event's organizers were a little nervous. While they were in the White House, the Clintons were never regarded warmly within the ranks or among the brass, and the First Lady was seen as especially hostile to the military. (There are still soldiers who swear by the myth that she banned uniforms at the White House.) It was rumored that some officers were planning to walk out of the award ceremony. As it turned out, the audience did stand up, but not to leave. When Clinton's name was announced, she received a standing ovation. "If you'd asked me three years ago, I would have been surprised," says Lt. Col. Lou Leto, the group's spokesman. "[But] she's one of our strongest advocates."

It is no accident that hawks inside and outside the military are reconsidering Hillary Clinton. She may have entered the Senate in 2001 with three strikes against her--she was a woman, a Democrat and a Clinton. But Senator Clinton immediately began a methodical campaign to undo her image as a dovish liberal with no interest in military affairs. Post 9/11, she was quick to recognize that Democrats--and especially one all but openly running for president--were vulnerable on defense issues. It was a trap she has seemed determined to avoid. She supported the Iraq invasion and has resisted the call for a quick withdrawal championed by Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha. "In the wake of 9/11, America will not vote for anyone they do not trust to protect them," says national-security analyst Lawrence Korb. "She grasps that." In New York, Clinton's pro-military posture helped broaden her appeal beyond liberal-leaning Manhattan. (She's up for re-election next year, and her Republican opponent is foundering.) Yet it has also touched off grumbling among Democratic Party activists, who have turned strongly against the war in Iraq. Her Senate office has received so many e-mails from frustrated Democrats that she responded last week with a 1,600-word letter, in which she took responsibility for her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, but still blamed President George W. Bush for prewar intelligence failures and the current mess on the ground. On the sticky question of pulling out, she has, in classic Clinton style, attempted to navigate between the hawks she is courting and the doves who make up her base. She wrote Iraq shouldn't be an "open-ended commitment," but at the same time she has avoided specifics about how and when to leave. GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham thinks she is being shrewd. Though most Americans now oppose the war, polls show that 60 percent are still against an immediate withdrawal. "That's the Republicans' strongest point," says Graham, who sits with Clinton on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And Hillary knows that."

Clinton has used her platform on Armed Services to educate herself on defense issues. She receives briefings from military officials and calls big thinkers from her husband's Rolodex, including Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, for advice. Some of those who've met with her have come away surprised by her command of the material. Former secretary of Defense William Perry went into one briefing expecting lots of interruptions. Instead, the pair spent two solid hours during which Clinton grilled him with detailed questions. "I started to worry I'd run short of material," joked Perry.

For her efforts, she has begun to win respect within military circles. Retired Gen. Jack Keane, the former vice chief of the Army whom she's consulted about Iraq, says he's praised her to "the guys"--meaning the Pentagon brass.

At the same time, Clinton has worked to win over soldiers and their families with old-school constituent service. New York is home to 11,000 soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Clinton's staffers have made sure paychecks arrive on time and care packages reach their destination. She lobbied hard to keep several bases from being closed, and is still pushing to get reservists better health care. In September, the Military Coalition, which represents more than 5 million service people and their families, awarded her its highest honor.

But impressing the brass and winning over the troops may turn out to be the easy part. If she runs in '08, she'll have to use her military education to stake out clear positions not only on Iraq, but Syria, Iran, North Korea and beyond. So far, she's not getting out ahead. When asked about a strategy for leaving Iraq, she waved off the question. "Nobody has all the answers," she told NEWSWEEK. For now, Clinton is content to let George W. Bush worry about disarming the enemy in Iraq. She's busy enough worrying about disarming her critics in Washington.