Taking Stock of Barack

Do Obama's past foreign-policy positions—and the way he talks about them now—reveal anything about how he would conduct affairs of state if elected?

Perhaps the best compliment to Senator Barack Obama and the relative integrity of his record is the distortion of his statements by his political opponents. From President Bush to former President Bill Clinton, Obama's detractors have either mischaracterized or put considerable spin on his positions on key areas, such as Iraq, Pakistan and Iran. This could well be because Obama is at a substantive advantage vis-à-vis his Democratic and Republican challengers, given his publicly stated foresight on the Iraq War. And while Obama's positions on important foreign-policy issues have not always been static (even to some degree on the Iraq War), Obama has demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge his prior position. Obama has therefore not resorted to that dark art of politics, alchemizing one's prior positions in order to avoid acknowledging misjudgments or contradictions.

Obama may also unroll a fair number of platitudes during his speeches, but he can also be long on details-informing voters on his stances on wide-ranging issues with foreign-policy implications, from the use of torture, to the procedural elements of presidential decision making, to nuclear disarmament, to U.S. policy toward Pakistan. Still, one element of his Iraq proposal is bare in details. And on Iran, there is a notable disconnect between the senator's rhetoric and his actions.


On Iraq

Obama has summed up the difference between his position on the Iraq War and that of Senator Hillary Clinton in simple terms. While he publicly argued against the war in 2002, Clinton that same year cast a vote in the Senate to give President George Bush the authority to wage it.

The Hill's Sam Youngman reported last March that Bill Clinton said, during a conference call with hundreds of Hillary Clinton supporters, that "to characterize Hillary and Obama's positions on the war as polar opposites is ludicrous." During the call, which the Hill listened to after being provided with the call-in information, Clinton added, "This dichotomy that's been set up to allow him to become the raging hero of the anti-war crowd on the Internet is just factually inaccurate."

Similarly, earlier this month, Bill Clinton said publicly while campaigning in New Hampshire for his wife, regarding Obama's positions on the Iraq War: "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." He added, "to characterize Hillary and Obama's positions on the war as polar opposites is ludicrous."

Apparently, it is a fairy tale that a number of prominent former Clintonites appear to believe in. Greg Craig, Tony Lake, Susan Rice, Richard Danzig and David Wilhelm all served with or advised either Bill or Hillary Clinton and are now either publicly supporting or advising Obama. But is there any veracity to Bill Clinton's claims? If the Clintons can minimize the dichotomy on Iraq, it is mainly because Hillary Clinton has staked so many different positions on the war, not because she has held steadfast to a single one.

In a well-documented article for the New Republic, Michael Crowley shows convincingly that Obama did not require a tremendous amount of courage to stake an antiwar position while preparing for a bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. Indeed, while Obama argued forcefully against the war in 2002 when invited to an antiwar rally, he could not be fairly characterized as an antiwar activist. Still, a politician with any stirring of presidential aspirations knows that clear-cut opposition to a war could come at considerable political cost later in a general presidential election. And if Obama did not summon significant political valor on the war, he clearly proved his foresight.

Obama's confidence in his own judgment on the Iraq War was not unshakeable, though. As Crowley notes in his article, Obama did question whether his position would be borne out. In his 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope, Obama said that when he saw George Bush deliver his "Mission Accomplished" speech from the deck of an aircraft carrier, "I began to suspect that I might have been wrong." Perhaps more notably, he said in October 2006: "I'm always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought [the war] was such a bad idea was that I didn't have the benefit of U.S. intelligence."

Still, as Crowley also points out: "In many other cases, Obama stood firmly by his initial war opposition. Even in mid-April 2003, just days after a Saddam Hussein statue was famously toppled in Baghdad-and at a time when a New York Times poll found that 79 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the war-Obama, speaking to a Chicago paper, warned that Bush ‘is riding high on the whole Iraq situation for the moment, but . . . [t]he jury is still out.' "

Perhaps the main dichotomy between Obama's and Hillary Clinton's Iraq positions may be that while Clinton has obfuscated to some degree on her 2002 vote, Obama has not equivocated on what position he took in 2002, even though he may at times have doubted whether or not he had made the correct call on the war. And though Obama has vacillated at certain times on Iraq, there does appear to be ample dichotomy in the breadth of the positions that he and Clinton have taken on the war.