Mona Charen: Obama sounds like neocon
Had it not been for opposing war, President Barack Obama might never have catapulted to the White House.
It was taken for granted in the run-up to the presidential campaign of 2008 that candidate Obama had principled objections to the war in Iraq. He was the left’s champion against Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had, along with 29 of the then 50 Democratic senators, voted in favor of the Iraq War resolution. That vote was to dog her throughout the Democratic primaries.
Though Obama was only a state legislator in 2002, he gave a highly partisan anti-war speech that improved his standing with the left wing of the Democratic Party. “What I am opposed to,” he declaimed, “is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.” When the war began to go badly in 2006 and 2007, Obama was hailed as prescient.
After winning the nomination, Obama reiterated his opposition to the war in Iraq, which he claimed had been poorly led, unnecessary, badly motivated and doomed to failure.
In a March 2007 Senate floor speech, Sen. Obama recited the leftist litany about Iraq. It was folly, he argued, to “go it alone” – overlooking the fact that 27 nations participated in the coalition to remove Saddam Hussein. Obama repeated the common liberal trope of the time that only a political settlement would end the violence. “There is no military solution to this war,” he pronounced.
When President George W. Bush announced the troop surge in January 2007, Obama opposed it, saying, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” Even a year later, when evidence mounted that the surge was working, Obama continued to push for retreat (“phased redeployment”) because “I don’t think the president’s strategy is going to work.”
Only in mid-July of 2008 did the Obama campaign scrub criticism of the surge from its website.
By turning to the architect of the Iraq surge, Gen. David Petraeus, to save the war in Afghanistan, President Obama is acknowledging, if only implicitly, that he was quite wrong about the Iraq surge and that Bush was right.
But what remains of the rest of his critique about Bush’s war in Iraq?
What distinguishes Obama’s hopes for Afghanistan from Bush’s much-despised aspirations for Iraq? At his press conference following the G-20 summit, Obama sounded like a neoconservative. “… I reject the notion that the Afghan people don’t want some of the basic things that everybody wants – basic rule of law, a voice in governance, economic opportunity, basic physical security, electricity, roads, an ability to get a harvest to market and get a fair price for it without having to pay too many bribes in between. And I think we can make a difference, and the coalition can make a difference, in them meeting those aspirations …”
The “Come home, America” president is in full nation-building mode now. In that 2007 speech, he had predicted that only the removal of American troops would permit Iraq to thrive: “… it must begin soon. Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Iraqis to take ownership of their country and bring an end to their conflict. It is time for our troops to start coming home.”
No more. Whereas candidate Obama was contemptuous of Bush’s “open-ended” commitment in Iraq, President Obama is now walking back his promise to leave Afghanistan by July 2011. “There has been a lot of obsession around this whole issue of when do we leave,” he said. “My focus right now is how do we make sure that what we’re doing there is successful, given the incredible sacrifices that our young men and women are putting in.” The July 2011 departure date is inoperative – like the promise to close Guantanamo by January 2010.
I am not confident that the surge will work as well in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. But I am sure that the president owes his predecessor an apology.
Mona Charen is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.