Obama & the ‘experience factor’


“The Experience Factor.” The words resonate wherever pols and pundits congregate, sipping and opining at watering holes along the campaign trail.

“The Experience Factor.” It comes up right after someone mentions “The Obama Phenomenon” — and it sets the wise heads to nodding, figuring that concerns about his lack of experience will doom what many think is a premature run for the presidency by this talented man who has only been a U.S. senator for two years.

But before joining the Wise Nodding Bobble-Heads, we need to take a hard look at The Experience Factor. After all, searching for presidential experience ought to be a bit like candling an egg, because before passing judgment and then discarding it, it is good to figure out what is really inside.

We begin in October 2002. Congress was deliberating what to do about Saddam Hussein, who was refusing to cooperate with U.N. inspectors of weapons of mass destruction. In the club that is the Senate, smart liberals — including Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., now the Armed Services Committee chairman — were fashioning alternative resolutions that would authorize President Bush to invade Iraq, but with important caveats, and so on.

Of all the words legislators spoke in that crucial month, none proved more prescient than these, uttered on Oct. 26, 2002:

“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. …

“So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president today. … Let’s finish the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.”

Those words were spoken not in the U.S. Senate, but at an anti-war rally in Chicago. The speaker was not a U.S. senator, but Illinois state Sen. Obama. He began by boldly attacking the notion of being anti-war.

“Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances,” Obama said.

He spoke eloquently of the importance of the Civil War, World War II (“My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s army.”) and the War on Terror.

“After September 11th, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again,” Obama said.

“I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”

What made Obama’s speech rather remarkable wasn’t just that his warnings proved true. It was that this was a state legislator who had developed a conceptual framework of how world issues are intrinsically linked — that actions in one place can have far-reaching consequences.

So Obama urged Bush to fight terror by vigorously fighting for nonproliferation and the safeguarding of poorly secured weapons in the former Soviet Union (the Nunn-Lugar program, named for former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who would become Obama’s mentor and partner in policy initiatives). He warned about nuclear war between India and Pakistan, and urged us to press Middle East allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to ease repressive practices that turn citizens into “ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

On that day, Obama ended his uncommon anti-war-rally speech not with a fist-shaking warning but with a heart-tugging reminder about who would pay the ultimate price for a federal folly. After warning us not to “travel down that hellish path blindly” by invading Iraq without global consensus, he added: “Nor should we allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain.”

Those who were in Chicago’s Federal Plaza on that 2002 day heard a voice of experience that was neither heard nor heeded in a nation’s capital hell-bent on fighting the wrong war.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)