FORESIGHT….In response to all sorts of different questions about Barack Obama — Why should we support him? How is a first-term Senator suddenly winning the nomination? How can he beat John McCain? What kind of President will he be? — I like to point to these three paragraphs from his 2002 speech against the Iraq War:
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, 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.
I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know 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.
I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.
What’s special about this speech isn’t just that Obama opposes the war. It’s that he clearly and concisely predicts several major problems with it, and his predictions have been borne out by history. We had superior ways of dealing with whatever threats Saddam presented, reconstructing the country would be a mess, and the war would strengthen al-Qaeda. Obama made these points at a time when Democrats with political ambitions were falling over themselves to look tough on foreign policy by supporting a war they’d later regret.
Perhaps the most under-remarked fact about the Democratic primary is that if Hillary Clinton had Obama’s foresight on the Iraq War, she’d be our nominee today and he probably wouldn’t have bothered to run. She had the profile to become the leader of the doves in the Senate, a position that would’ve gained value dramatically as the war turned out to be a disaster. There might’ve been a challenge from the right, but she would’ve consolidated left-wing support and won easily. Instead, she became one of the more hawkish Democrats in the Senate, and was probably the most hawkish figure onstage during the Democratic debates. Without even seriously repenting her mistaken vote on the biggest foreign policy question of our time, it’s a surprise that she got as far as she did.
Obama’s foresight is also going to be a tremendous advantage in the general election. John McCain blew the biggest foreign policy question of our time, and he’s still proud to have voted as he did. (Fortunately, two thirds of Americans are aware that the war was a mistake, though it’s unclear if they know how extreme McCain’s views are.) McCain claims his experience as an advantage, but the point of experience is supposed to be that you don’t make wrong decisions and get thousands of our soldiers killed for no reason. Obama, by contrast, figured out that the war was a bad idea from the beginning. I look forward to seeing this contrast emphasized in the general election.
I want a president whose foreign policy is guided more by rational evaluation of the situations we face than a desire to look tough. And with Barack Obama, that’s what I’m getting. Even if your major progressive interests lie elsewhere, making foreign policy a perceived Democratic strength will help you achieve your goals. With Obama’s foresight — both as he exercised it in 2002, and as he’ll exercise it in office — we can do that.