Published on Friday, January 11, 2008 by Foreign Policy in Focus
by Stephen Zunes
The strong showings by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in the early contests for the Democratic presidential nomination don’t just mark a repudiation of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and “war on terrorism.” They also indicate a rejection of the Democratic Party establishment, much of which supported the invasion of Iraq and other tragic elements of the administration’s foreign policy.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that voters found Senator Obama’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in contrast to the strong support for the invasion by his principal rivals for the Democratic Party nomination, a major factor contributing to his surprisingly strong challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the race for the White House. Indeed, while his current position on Iraq is not significantly different than that of Clinton or the other major challenger, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Obama’s good judgment not to support the war five years ago has led millions of Democratic and independent voters to find him more trustworthy as a potential commander-in-chief.
At the same time, while he certainly takes more progressive positions on Middle East issues than Senator Clinton or the serious Republican presidential contenders, he backs other aspects of U.S. policies toward Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have raised some troubling questions. This is one factor that has tempered support for the trailblazing African-American candidate among liberal and progressive voters.
Iraq in the Illinois State Senate
In October 2002, while Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were in Washington leading Congressional efforts to authorize President George W. Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, Obama–then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way–took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago. While Clinton and Edwards were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and U.S. national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”
Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the United States to “allow UN inspectors to do their work.” He noted “that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”
Furthermore, unlike the the Iraq War’s initial supporters, Obama recognized that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Understanding the dangerous consequences to regional stability resulting from war, Obama accurately warned that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
Iraq in the U.S. Senate
Once elected to the U.S. Senate, however, his anti-war voice became muted. Obama supported unconditional funding for the Iraq War in both 2005 and 2006. And–despite her false testimonies before Congress and her mismanagement of Iraq policy before, during, and after the U.S. invasion in her role as National Security Advisor–Obama broke with most of his liberal colleagues in the Senate by voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state during his first weeks in office.
Obama didn’t even make a floor speech on the war until a full year after his election. In it, he called for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops but no timetable for their withdrawal. In June 2006, he voted against an amendment by Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry for such a timetable.
In addition, during the 2006 Democratic congressional primaries, he campaigned for pro-war incumbents–including Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman against his eventually victorious primary challenger Ned Lamont–and other conservative Democrats fighting back more progressive anti-war challengers.
Iraq as a Presidential Candidate
It was only after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, called for setting a date to withdraw U.S. combat troops, and only after Obama formed his presidential exploratory committee, that he introduced legislation setting a date for troop withdrawal More details on Obama's Middle East positions...