Michael Crowley: Is Obama's Iraq record really a fairy tale?

Roundup: Media's Take

[Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.]

It was a cool, damp afternoon when Barack Obama arrived to speak at an antiwar rally in Chicago's Federal Plaza on October 2, 2002. The scene was ragtag. A metal tower had been festooned with strips of white cloth upon which rally attendees wrote personalized peace messages. Protesters danced to a band featuring kazoos and a marching skeleton. Jesse Jackson was to be the day's marquee speaker. But it was Obama, wearing a war is not an option lapel pin, who stole the show. Obama's 926-word speech denounced a "dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics." The crowd was electrified. "I stood there and listened to him give that speech and said, 'Who is this guy?'" says Jennifer Spitz, one of the rally's organizers. Eventually, Spitz says, she turned to the person next to her and declared: "He needs to be president!"

Obama has repeatedly returned to his remarks from that day: as evidence of his wisdom, as a stark contrast with Hillary Clinton, who has struggled to explain her vote to authorize war. "The story of his campaign is really the story of that speech and his opposition to Iraq," Clinton herself explained on "Meet the Press" last month. But, according to the Clinton campaign, there's more to the story than that. It has posited its own counternarrative of Obama's Iraq war, where he followed his stirring oration in Chicago with inconsistent rhetoric and political timidity. In a March 2007 conference call with campaign donors, Bill Clinton complained that Obama only became "the raging hero of the antiwar crowd on the Internet" thanks to a "factually inaccurate" depiction of his antiwar bona fides. In January, Clinton described the press's portrayal of Obama's Iraq stance as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

The press's failure to closely examine Obama's Iraq record is a source of perpetual frustration for the Clinton camp--and a fair gripe. It has allowed Obama's supporters to mythologize him as a fearless crusader. At the same time, it has enabled the Clintons to mount overzealous attacks on his record.

Many of the Clintons' specific attacks on Obama are unfair distortions. But it's also true that a close look at his Iraq record reveals more nuance than the Obama campaign acknowledges. It shows that Obama is cautious and pragmatic, hardly immune from political pressures, and sometimes prone to shading his rhetoric for convenience. But, ultimately, in substantive policy terms, he is also open to intellectual reexamination based on changing events. This may not be quite the Obama of the popular imagination, and it is certainly not the Obama of his own campaign ads. Nor is it, after 2002, substantially different from Hillary Clinton's own course on Iraq. But it is no "fairy tale," either.

On the last weekend of September 2002, Marilyn Katz, a p.r. maven and former aide to Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, was awoken by a phone call from her old friend BettyLu Saltzman. "We have to do something about Bush's drive to war, " said Saltzman, a wealthy political gadfly in her seventies. Katz agreed. The two women contacted friends on the local liberal-activist circuit--"a bunch of old sixties radicals," says Katz--about staging a demonstration. A slew of local politicians were invited to speak. Few accepted. One of them was Obama.

It is commonly held that Hillary Clinton simply blew with the political winds by supporting the Senate war resolution--she allegedly feared looking "weak" on national security--while Obama took a bold risk. In a September 26, 2007, debate at Dartmouth College, Obama congratulated himself for "telling the truth to the American people even when it's tough, which I did in 2002, standing up against this war at a time where it was very unpopular. And I was risking my political career, because I was in the middle of a U.S. Senate race."

At a minimum, that's an overstatement. With war looming in the fall of 2002, Obama was preparing a long-shot run for an open U.S. Senate seat, which he would not formally announce until the following January. At least two other Democrats were also gearing up, including a wealthy white businessman. Obama's best shot at the Democratic nomination involved consolidating a coalition of lakefront liberals and African Americans. "He knew, and I knew, that the liberal progressives were key in any Democratic primary," says Dan Shomon, Obama's then-campaign manager. Shomon insists politics were secondary to Obama's sincere antiwar ardor. Still, though it may have been unpopular to oppose the war in Washington, that was not the case among liberals in Chicago--among the first cities to pass an antiwar resolution. (Obama also had an interest in pleasing Saltzman. The spunky grandmother was an important local ally who has since raised more than $50,000 for his campaign.)

Nor was opposing the war likely to threaten Obama in a general election. Illinois is a reliably blue state, carried easily by Al Gore and John Kerry. The state's only Democratic senator at the time, Dick Durbin (as well as eight of Illinois's nine Democrats in the House), ultimately opposed the Iraq resolution. Moreover, Obama was a long-shot U.S. Senate candidate likely to lose and remain in his liberal Hyde Park State Senate district, probably among the nation's least pro-war enclaves.

There's no reason to think that Obama's war position was anything but sincere. But, given how many people have noted the perceived political calculation of Clinton's vote for the Iraq resolution, it's only fair to note that Obama's war position happened to dovetail with his own ambitions. Moreover, even Shomon concedes that Obama discussed the politics of his speech beforehand. "What about the people that are for the war?" Obama asked him. "Am I gonna have damage politically?"...

As he campaigns for his party's nomination, Obama may have at last found an easy answer. But his occasional moments of sympathy for the senators who voted for the war, and his reluctance to adopt controversial post-war positions, suggest that Obama himself may understand that the issue is more complicated than his condemnations of Hillary Clinton's judgment.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 2/17/2008

Behind all that flood of "cautionary" articles on Obama candidacy is that the US economic and political elite got scared by the unforseen popularity of the candidate that might not be (which still remains to be seen) one of its own and might significantly deviate from their ideological recipes in cooking the country's internal and external policies.
Don't worry noble gentlemen, he's not
going to become a President,... since you won't let him.