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.


  1. PixelMarx

    My recollection of October 2002 is different. If there was little risk in speaking out against the war, then why did those in the media not question the data being used by the Bush Administration and exercise some journalistic muscle? Instead, there was a free pass by the media, and by the congress to go to war. And to stand up before the war even started and state that it was a bad war does take risk. Turn the tables. If the war had been a success, his speech would be used against him today as just another anti-war speech.

  2. emurph

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been saying for months that this one act in no way qualifies someone to be President. As you say, no one knows, including Mr. Obama, how he would have voted if he had been in the senate and his vote had actually counted politically for or against him. I lived in Illinois in 2002 and participated in several anti-war rallies. I believed Iraq was a mistake that would become a quagmire, and I was pretty vocal about it. But I hardly have the audacity to think that qualifies me to be President! Our situation in the world is far too perilous to be placed in the hands of someone who once made a speech that had a 1 in 2 chance of being right…or wrong. I was a real Obama fan until he got into this race. I was shocked at his hubris. Actually it reminds me of someone else who actually won the prize, but look at the price we are all paying now.

  3. SEAL

    The way things turned out there was no risk. But what if they had found a half finished nuclear bomb in Saddam’s bedroom? Would Obama be a presidential candidate, now?

    Every candidate casts themselves as “courageous leaders.” Do you want a president who isn’t?

    This is just another baseless article with no meat by a bought and paid for journalist to shed negative light upon the competition by insinuation or inuendo.

    When I was young my uncle explained the news media to me this way: The reporter asks you if you ran the red light this morning. (only one traffic light in our town) You say no. Tomorrow the big bold headline says “SEAL DENIES RUNNING THE RED LIGHT.” Forever after that, people watch closely when you approach that traffic light.

  4. SEAL

    Actually, the strongest thing Obama has going for him is that he is outside the mainstream of politics as usual and that inexperience is very appealing to many people. His base is made up of younger people just as Kennedy’s was. They don’t figure into polls. We may be in for a surprise in the primaries.

    The MSM continues to show Clinton well ahead in the polls but they are pushing her campaign. So, who knows how those polls are conducted? The thing that separates Obama is the tremendous turnout he gets when he appears to speak almost anywhere. I notice they are a younger crowd. He may have a lot more support than we think.

    It’s really difficult to get a handle on whether he would be able to handle the job. Clinton is a known quantity. We know what to expect. All we have from Obama is what he says he will do. He says the right thing, though. But can he make it happen? To do that he must surround himself with the right people if elected. That is something we all tend to forget during elections. It’s not just the president, it’s also the people they bring in with him/her.

    Personally I would rather have Obama than Clinton. But any of the others would be better than her in my view.