Hillary Clinton, left, with Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30, 2014 during a \ Credit: Courtesy Photo / Aspen Institute

ASPEN – Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made news Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival by addressing the just-released decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that said “closely-held” corporations with religious beliefs don’t have to pay for birth control measures mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

“I obviously disagree,” Clinton said about the 5-4 decision by the court in the “Hobby Lobby” case. “I disagree with the reasoning and the conclusion.

“It’s the first time that our court has said that a closely-held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom, which means that … employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees,” Clinton said. “And, of course, denying women the right to contraception as part of their health care plan is exactly that. I find it deeply disturbing that we are going in that direction.”

At that, the audience in a packed Benedict Music Tent on the Aspen Institute campus applauded Clinton, who was interviewed by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

He mainly steered the discussion to parts of Clinton’s best-selling book, “Hard Choices,” and only pressed her gently on her presidential ambitions.

Clinton offered no fresh insights on the 2016 race, but the Aspen crowd was buzzing after her interview, in which her multiple references to “hard choices” sounded like a campaign theme. And her remarks in Aspen were fresh fodder for the instant Washington D.C. news cycle, and quickly posted by numerous media outlets.

Clinton said she made women and girls a central issue of her foreign policy work as secretary of state because in many repressive countries around the world, women’s rights and rules about their bodies are used by men for political reasons.

“It is a disturbing trend that you see in a lot of societies that are very unstable, anti-democratic and frankly, prone to extremism, where women, and women’s bodies, are used as the defining and unifying issue to bring together people — men — to get them to behave in ways that are disadvantageous to women but which prop them up because of their religion, their sect, tribe, whatever,” Clinton said.

She said America was still far from that, but she said the court’s decision raises “serious questions.”

“I think there should be a real outcry against this kind of decision,” Clinton said, adding that many more companies will now likely claim religious beliefs. “This is a really bad slippery slope.”

Former Vice President Al Gore, who served under President Clinton, also spoke on Monday. He called for people to accept the reality of climate change and expressed optimism in the increase of sustainable energy sources.

Hillary Clinton, left, with Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30, 2014 during a \ Credit: Courtesy photo / Aspen Institute

Change in Iraq

Asked about her vote in support of invading Iraq, Clinton conceded she’d done a lot of “rhetorical distancing” in the past about her decision and described how she resisted pressure on the campaign trail in 2008 to publicly admit it had been a mistake.

“In part, it was because I didn’t want to say to the young men and women who were serving in the United States military in Iraq, fighting and dying and being injured, ‘Yeah, one more person is saying it is a mistake you are there,’” Clinton said. “I did resist saying I made a mistake, but not for the usual purposes … for me it was much more personal and obviously it was a mistake.”

In regard to the current situation in Iraq, where the country is under siege by the fast-moving Islamic ISIS army, Clinton said it was brought on in part by sectarian decisions made by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in favor of Shias over Sunnis.

“What we’re trying to do now is to really persuade, and in effect, force some political change on the Maliki government, including the possibility that there would be a different prime minister, something that I have concluded is probably necessary,” Clinton said.

Clinton said, however, that could be difficult given that Maliki has been twice democratically elected.

Isaacson then asked Clinton if it should be U.S. policy to always follow elections and electoral democracy.

“Well, we should certainly promote it, but we have many examples where we haven’t followed it,” Clinton said.

Clinton was not the only speaker at the Ideas Festival on Monday who blamed the current situation in Iraq on Maliki.

“We got to where we are because of two-and-a-half years of increasingly sectarian and increasingly authoritarian actions by the Iraqi government,” said David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA and commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, who spoke with Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

Once U.S. fighting forces left Iraq, Petraeus said agreements reached with Sunni leaders in Iraq during “the surge” phase of the Iraq war were not honored by Maliki.

And he said the new coalition government now forming in Iraq “needs to be an inclusive government, i.e., one that can be trusted by Sunni and Kurd, as well as Shia.

“If you can’t get a government that is trusted by all three of those communities, you cannot make progress in re-establishing the territorial integrity of Iraq, so that’s a must,” he said.

Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30, 2014. Credit: Courtesy photo / Aspen Institute

Embrace modernity?

Tony Blair, former British prime minister who has been serving for the last seven years as an envoy to the Middle East, also called for a change in Iraqi leadership.

“Can this Iraqi government survive and lead an effort and push back these insurgents under Maliki, or does he have to go?” Blair was asked by Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC.

“If he doesn’t change, then he should be changed,” Blair said. “This cannot turn into a Sunni-Shia fight.”

Blair, who also once supported the Iraq war, said he still feels the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and his sons, but he also conceded he made a mistake.

“Of course, there were mistakes made and I’ve accepted full responsibility for those,” Blair said.

Blair said a larger, longer battle was now underway in the broader Middle East region and that citizens there are facing a choice.

“You can either have a society based on a reactionary view of politics and religion, where you are trying to return these societies to a kind of seventh-century view of the world, or you can embrace modernity,” Blair said. “And what does that mean? It means understanding that democracy is a way of thinking and not just a way of voting. And the only society that works in the modern world is one in which you are tolerant and respectful of people who have a different faith than yourself.”

Blair also said U.S. citizens should not expect a quick end to the strife in the Middle East, especially given the young population there.

“The American strategy, in my view, should be to recognize this is going to be complex [and] it’s going to be long — the next president after President Obama is going to be dealing with it and probably the next president after that,” Blair said. “We may be weary of war, but they’re not. And part of their fight, I’m afraid, is with us. With us, and our way of life. And so, whether we like it or not, we’re going to be involved in it.”

The Ideas Festival continues through midday on Thursday. Today, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is slated to talk with Katie Couric of Yahoo! News on the topic, “The Dope on Pot,” and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers is to speak on the future of the economy. Also speaking Tuesday are Newt Gingrich, Arianna Huffington and Grover Norquist.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. The Daily News ran this story on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...