Is Obama really a leader?

Nobody can dispute that Barack Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start and, with striking prescience, predicted U.S. troops would be mired in a costly conflict that fanned “the flames of the Middle East.”

But nobody should accept at face value the Illinois senator’s claim that he was a “courageous leader” who opposed the war at great political risk.

The truth is that while Obama showed foreign policy savvy and an ability to keenly analyze both sides of an issue in his October 2002 warnings on Iraq, the political upside of his position rivaled any risk.

And, once elected to the U.S. Senate two years later, Obama waited months to show national leadership on Iraq.

Even now, as he hopes to ride his anti-war credentials to the White House, Obama’s views on how to end the conflict differ little from those of Democratic rivals who voted in the fall of 2002 to give President Bush authority to wage war.

At the time, two-thirds of Americans supported military action against Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, and Bush’s approval rating was high.

Against that national headwind, anti-war activists in Illinois staged an Oct. 2, 2002, rally, and invited Obama to speak. A little-known state senator from one of the nation’s most liberal districts, Obama was considering a bid for the U.S. Senate.

“I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances,” he began at the rally, adding that he opposed only “dumb wars.”

After conceding that Saddam was a ruthless butcher who coveted nuclear capacity, Obama said the Iraqi leader posed no direct threat to the United States and could be contained through international diplomacy.

“I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences,” Obama said.

“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-Qaida.”

Obama also warned of a “rash war,” orchestrated by neoconservatives to further an ideological agenda, and promoted by Bush’s political advisers to advance GOP election gains. It would be months before his future Democratic rivals would make similar claims.

In this way, Obama did lead. But how far?

His latest campaign ad calls Obama “a leader with the judgment to oppose the Iraq war before it began.” The words “courageous leader” are superimposed over video.

Courageous or calculating? These are the facts:

In 2004, while getting ready for his star-making address to the Democratic National Convention, Obama gave presidential nominee John Kerry and other leading Democrats a pass for backing Bush on Iraq.

Noting he was not privy to intelligence reports shown to Kerry and others, Obama told The New York Times, “What would I have done? I don’t know.”

Once elected, Obama didn’t force the issue in the Senate. His first floor speech encouraged Democrats to drop challenges to the 2004 presidential election “at a time when we try to make certain we encourage democracy in Iraq.”

His first major address on Iraq came in November 2005, when he said U.S. forces remained “part of a solution.”

Seven months later, he was voting in step with Clinton for a middle-of-the-road approach. On June 22, 2006, they both backed a nonbinding resolution to pull troops out of Iraq.

More meaningfully, they also rejected a bill — backed by the force of law — that would have required the troops to come home by a date certain.

Obama likes to say he feared his anti-war views would hurt his Senate candidacy in 2002. He may have felt that way, but there was little reason for concern.

First, his strategy for winning the Democratic Senate nomination hinged on his ability to form a coalition among blacks and so-called lakefront liberals in Chicago, hardly a pro-war constituency. His rivals for the nomination also would criticize the war.

In the general election, Obama might have had to regret his remarks if the war had been going well in 2004. Still, he was never too far out on a limb:

• Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois voted against Bush on Iraq in 2002 and breezed to re-election shortly after Obama’s signature speech.

_The Chicago Sun-Times published an October 2002 poll under the headline “Illinois is not ready for war.”

The survey found that more than half of voters in the Democratic-leaning state wanted more proof that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction before the United States waged war.

Iraq wasn’t a major issue in the race, according to several Illinois political observers.

“What he was saying in October 2002 — and this takes nothing away from him; he’s a very impressive guy — was not a risky thing,” said Chris Mooney, political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

“Not risky at all.”


Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. AP writer Christopher Wills contributed to this story from Illinois.