Call him slippery or nuanced, Barack Obama’s core position on Iraq has always been more ambiguous than audacious. Now it is catching up with him, as his latest remarks are questioned by the Republicans, the mainstream media and the antiwar movement. He could put his candidacy at risk if his audacity continues to shrivel.
I first endorsed Obama because of the nature of the movement supporting him, not his particular stands on issues. The excitement among African-Americans and young people, the audacity of their hope, still holds the promise of a new era of social activism. The force of their rising expectations, I believe, could pressure a President Obama in a progressive direction and also energize a new wave of social movements. And of course, there is the need to end the Republican reign that began with a stolen election followed by eight years of war and torture, corporate gouging, environmental decay, domestic spying and right-wing court appointments, just in case we forget whom Obama is running against.
Besides the transforming nature of an African-American President, the issue that matters most to me is achieving a peaceful settlement of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and preventing American escalations in Iran and Latin America. From the beginning, Obama’s symbolic 2002 position on Iraq has been very promising, reinforced again and again by his campaign pledge to “end the war” in 2009.
But that pledge has also been laced with loopholes all along, caveats that the mainstream media and his opponents (excepting Bill Richardson) have ignored or avoided until now. As I pointed out in Ending the War in Iraq , Obama’s 2002 speech opposed the coming war with Iraq as “dumb,” while avoiding what position he would take once the war was underway. Then he wrote of almost changing his position from antiwar to prowar after a trip to Iraq. He never took as forthright a position as Senator Russ Feingold, among others. Then he adopted the safe, nonpartisan formula of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group, which advocated the withdrawal of combat troops while leaving thousands of American counter-terrorism units, advisers and trainers behind. That would mean at least 50,000 Americans, including back-up forces, engaged in counterinsurgency after the withdrawal of combat troops, a contradiction the media and Hillary Clinton failed to explore in the primary debates. To his credit, Obama said that these American units would not become caught up in a lengthy sectarian civil war, leaving the question of their role unanswered.
The most shocking aspect of Samantha Power’s forced resignation earlier this year was not that she called Hillary Clinton a “monster” off-camera but that she flatly stated that Obama would review his whole position on Iraq once becoming President. Again, no one in the media or rival campaigns questioned whether this assertion by Powers was true. Since Obama credited Powers with helping for months in writing his book The Audacity of Hope, her comments on his inner thinking should have been pounced upon by the pundits.