Today’s Democratic Party is so stridently opposed to the war in Iraq that it’s hard to believe the same party presided over most of the big military buildups of the last century. Sometimes it seems more like the Democratic Party of Civil War years, which impeded Lincoln’s efforts to win the war at every turn. But precisely because Democrats are so virulently antiwar, as they have been since the Vietnam conflict a generation ago, many voters have a wrongheaded view of where party frontrunner Barack Obama stands on matters of war and peace. Like the main character in Ralph Ellison’s 1953 novel Invisible Man, Obama is a victim of stereotyping — not because he’s black, but because he’s liberal.
So here’s a quick quiz to see how much you know about the national-security views of the junior senator from Illinois. Which candidate told Palestinians before Hamas was elected that America would never recognize their government until it abandoned its campaign to destroy Israel? Which candidate upset environmentalists by backing coal gasification because he thought the nation needed greater energy independence? Which candidate voted to build a fence along the nation’s southern border to prevent unlawful crossings? Which candidate favors the economic and political isolation of Iran if that country continues to pursue nuclear weapons? Sounds a lot like John McCain, but the answer is Barack Obama.
The one thing that Barack Obama has said about war and peace that everyone remembers — because his campaign won’t let us forget — is his 2002 speech opposing the war in Iraq. While other Democrats were lining up behind President Bush’s ill-conceived invasion, Obama said: “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 the best, impulses in the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.” Four thousand American lives (and $600 billion) later, it’s obvious he was right.
Obama’s admirers often leave out the next two sentences in the 2002 speech: “I am not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars.” However, that comment appears to reflect his actual views, since he went well beyond what other Democratic candidates said in insisting he would attack Al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan with or without the permission of the Pakistani government. In a July 2007 essay in Foreign Affairs, Obama called for reinforcing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, pressing NATO to send more forces, and pressuring the Pakistanis to prosecute the campaign against the Taliban more vigorously.
The national-security framework Obama set forth in the Foreign Affairs essay was strikingly similar to ideas that George W. Bush advanced as a presidential candidate in 1999 — ideas about revitalizing the military for new challenges, retooling the intelligence community, halting the spread of nuclear weapons, and combating global terrorism. Obama’s approach to pursuing those objectives would undoubtedly look different from the Bush agenda. But once you get beyond Iraq and global warming, Obama and McCain don’t seem all that different in the way they view the world. After serving on the Senate Foreign Relations, Homeland Security, and Veterans’ Affairs Committees for several years, Barack Obama has assimilated the key features of the emerging security environment. He wouldn’t need the kind of education George W. Bush did in 2001 to be a competent Commander in Chief.
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