Obama’s war speech: How much political courage did it take?

I’ve written before, admiringly, about the October 2002 speech Barack Obama gave opposing the war in Iraq, the same month that Congress voted to authorize the war.

On one such recent occasion, a comment in the thread by Centauri argued that Obama’s stand against the war was not lonely and therefore may not have been as courageous as it is sometimes portrayed.

His chief fact in support of that argument was this: The great majority of Illinois Democrats in Congress voted against the Iraq war resolution.

I checked the congressional records and confirmed that eight of the 10 Illinois Dems in the U.S. House voted No on the resolution. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois also opposed the resolution authorizing the use of force.

All eight Illinois Republican congressmen plus GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald all voted Aye. The Chicago newspapers were editorializing in favor of the resolution, and polls showed that a majority of Americans and the majority of Illinoisans favored the use of U.S. military force to remove Saddam Hussein.

In the last Dem Prez debate, Obama did claim that:

“It was not [politically] smart for me to oppose the war at the start of this war, but I did so because it was the right thing to do.”

I take that to be a claim that it was an act of political courage.

It had not previously occurred to me that the question of whether Obama’s speech demonstrated good judgment, and whether it demonstrated political courage, could be separated. But they can, and perhaps should.

If the climate in Illinois was such that most Democratic elected officials opposed the war, it hardly seems that the decision of a state senator who was contemplating a run for Fitzgerald’s U.S. Senate seat should qualify for a Profile in Courage award for taking the same position.

‘I’m opposed to dumb wars’
None of this changes the contrast that Obama draws with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the war. Nor does it subtract from the prescience that Obama demonstrated in his remarks themselves, which included this passage:

“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 U.S. 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.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by David Lillehaug on 01/25/2008 - 01:29 pm.

    Excellent analysis by Eric Black. It’s one thing to draw a distinction with another candidate. It’s quite another to claim political courage. I suspect this piece will draw national attention.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/25/2008 - 05:22 pm.

    Agreed!
    And the ‘prescience’ appears to be as much that of Obama’s colleagues as his own.

  3. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 01/28/2008 - 10:32 am.

    This seems to me a strange argument. Perhaps courage is a relative concept. Certainly, compared to Hillary’s triangulation on the issue, Barak’s position is clear and prescient. Why does it diminish his character, that others like Dick Durbin showed similar courage?

    We saluted Paul Wellstone’s very similar speech on the Senate floor at the same time as an act of political courage, especially since he was facing a tough campaign against Norm Coleman and the Karl Rove driven senate election campaign. It seems to me at least arguable that Barak, contemplating a similar run against the Republican senate campaign leadership, faced a similar opportunity to prevaricate on the critical issue and instead took a principled position.

    Perhaps especially for someone who aspires to unite the American people across old divisions and party lines, taking a stand against the current opinion polls should be seen as a clear example of leadership.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 01/25/2008 - 08:00 pm.

    The key issue here is that Obama’s judgment was correct and that he took a strong and vocal position against this major mistake. This is in sharp contrast to both of his opponents for the Democratic nomination. Not only has his stand been supported by the execution or lack thereof of the war, but his critique of the consequences is acutely accurate. There is no other candidate in either party who can claim this.

    If his “lack of experience” in foreign policy matters means that he has the willingness to question mainstream opinion, seeks out other options, and is willing to stand up for them, I’ll take that over those who blindly follow the leader. Senator Wellstone had the courage to stand up against the war. Senator Obama also did so. This judgment warrants strong consideration into who is best to lead our nation through the aftermath of this trillion dollar debacle.

    To summarize, Senator Obama’s white shirt is clean while those of Senator Clinton and Edwards are stained with blood of 3,000 fallen Americans, thousands more injured and over a 100,000 Iraqi’s. Sound judgment and accountability are critical in this time for our nation. Senator Obama showed both, while others still are trying to wash away the stains on their shirts from their votes.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/26/2008 - 07:32 am.

    My recollection of that period was that it wasn’t very hard to be against the war resolution within the Democratic Party itself. The problem came with politician who needed to go outside the party to attract support from moderates. I am thinking in particular of senators. Also, for people actually in power, it was very difficult to oppose the president in times of national crisis when he said he needed certain powers. This was a difficult position for many in Congress but not so much for folks outside the system.

    I think Barack was right to oppose the war resolution especially in the hindsight not available to our elected representatives at the time. But I don’t think opposition required all that much courage, and he doesn’t seem to have followed it up by becoming involved in some sort of anti-war movement. Maybe that’s why Bill described Barack’s story as something of a fairy tale.

  6. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 02/13/2008 - 05:49 pm.

    How much political courage did it take to speak against and vote against the Iraq Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq just over twelve short months following 9-11?

    Enough courage that a United States Senator that did vote against the resolution is reported to have told his wife “I just cost myself the election.” Paul Wellstone’s courageous stand on the Iraq Resolution did not cost him the election (it actually helped him in the Minnesota polls prior to his death) but his view of both the cost of that speech and the cost of the war he saw coming is telling. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Wellstone

    The speeches given by Wellstone and Obama and Clinton at that time are all worth reading.

    http://www.wellstone.org/archive/article_detail.aspx?itemID=5423&catID=3605
    http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Barack_Obama's_Iraq_Speech
    http://clinton.senate.gov/speeches/iraq_101002.html

    In addition, the question of courage must be looked at not only in the context of that time but also in how its relative presence may have impacted the various positions taken. In that fearful time is it possible that some Democrats (and Republicans) who voted for the Iraq Resolution did so at least in some part to preserve their own political futures?

    Whether this describes Hillary Clinton only she can say. Certainly her perception at the time was that her New York constituents were “more attuned to the risk of not acting” and perhaps understandably she was as well. That would be a simple and straightforward explanation.

    But the Clinton explanation we get is that the vote on the Iraq resolution was a “vote for continued diplomacy” and that this authority had been ”misused” because the President and his administration acted ”without allowing the inspectors to finish the job in order to rush to war.”

    Given this more nuanced explanation, I suggest that you might just as readily ask: What kind of judgment did it take for anyone to rely to any degree on the assurances of Condoleezza Rice (or anyone else for that matter) in hoping that President Bush would use the Senate’s support wisely to avoid war?

    Few who watched closely during that time had any illusions about the Bush Administration’s intent and as history has shown, the wheels of war had already been steered towards Iraq before that authorizing resolution was passed.

    Clearly Senator Wellstone was under no illusions that this resolution authorized anything short of an “unprecedented, pre-emptive, go-it-alone military action in Iraq”.

    But looking back it also seems clear that Senator Clinton understood the gravity and consequences of her vote:

    “Today we are asked whether to give the President of the United States authority to use force in Iraq should diplomatic efforts fail to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons and his nuclear program.

    A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our President and we say to him – use these powers wisely and as a last resort. And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein – this is your last chance – disarm or be disarmed.”

    It took courage for and elected official to vote against and speak against the Iraq war resolution. To say otherwise now is to adopt a form of political amnesia concerning the tenor of those times.

    It also took a certain amount of willful imagination to trust that the Bush Administration would exercise restraint under those same circumstances and given its obvious and stated inclination towards war against Iraq (as indicated by Obama’s reference to Perle and Wolfowitz in his 2002 speech.)

    For those that wonder why Obama singled these individuals out, you might want to read the following letter and take careful note of both the date at the top and the names at the bottom.

    http://www.newamericancentury.org/iraqclintonletter.htm

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