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Obama and the Media Invoke Senator Clinton's Pre-war Position By Way of Selective Memory

02/28/2008 02:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"It is time for new leadership that understands the way to win a debate with John McCain or any Republican who is nominated is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq." Senator Obama on January 30, 2008

Keith Olbermann refers to it as the "Obama rebuttal," the argument that Senator's Clinton's "experience and that of Republican rival, John McCain led to their participation in the worst American foreign policy mistake in decades if not centuries, a single Senate vote in 2002, authorizing the use of military force in Iraq."

The statement is accurate, the way a broken clock is accurate twice a day. It looks at a single date, October 11, 2002, when both Clinton and McCain both voted for the Iraq resolution, and then ignores everything they said and did thereafter. If you look at the entire record, the pre-war positions of Hillary Clinton and John McCain were polar opposites. Any suggestion otherwise is more than a little misleading.

Clinton's position was substantially similar to that of Hans Blix, who believed that Saddam would never allow intrusive WMD inspections without the threat of force. But once the inspections were under way, neither Clinton nor Blix saw any basis or pursuing military action. McCain's position was like Dick Cheney's. He didn't care about inspectors or evidence of WMD. He just wanted war, period. He demanded as much in his speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies on February 13, 2003, one day before Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei presented the U.N. with their initial findings - that there was nothing there. And, just like he does today, McCain justified his stance by perverting history.

Obama and the media prefer to suggest some equivalency between the pre-war positions of Senators Clinton and McCain, conflating the October 2002 vote with the decision to invade in March 2003. As I've explained before on HuffPost, this is less than entirely honest. Republicans and their lapdogs have been pulling this same stunt since 2004. Here was the Republican party line used against presidential candidate John Kerry:

"[L]arge stockpiles of mass destruction do not exist. Saddam may have had the intent, the interest, but they're not there. John Kerry is obviously going to try to take advantage of it. Every time he does you hear George Bush and Dick Cheney saying, `Well, that's interesting senator, because you voted to authorize the war.' ... [T]hus far, what President Bush has been able to say is, "Well, I believed they [WMD] were there. Former President Clinton believed they were there. John Kerry believed they were there. If it was a mistake, it was an honest mistake." That's his view." Tim Russert on Today, September 17, 2004

"That's his view," said Russert. But what about the facts that Russert kept from NBC's viewers? John Kerry did not "vote to authorize the war" without exhausting all other means of peaceful resolution. On October 2, 2002, John Kerry said, "The vote that I will give to the president is for one reason and one reason only, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections." [emphasis added] Nor did John Kerry "believe" that the WMD were there at the time of the invasion. As he said, on March 14, 2003, "Nothing I have seen in the intelligence over the last years suggests to me that in terms of threat to the United States that there is, at this moment, such a compelling rationale that there is a distinction of weeks or months." In other words, Kerry said Blix should have all the time he needed.

Back then, Russert blurred this clear-cut distinction to make the Republicans look better. Now, Olbermann and others blur that same distinction to make Hillary Clinton look worse.

Read John McCain's speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies to get the full effect of his verbal grandiosity and hysteria - very much at odds with that aw-shucks persona we see on television. And then compare it with Senator Clinton's statements at the time.

"Today, new threats to civilization again defy our imagination in scale and potency. I believe Iraq is a threat of the first order, and only a change of regime will make Iraq a state that does not threaten us and others, and where a liberated people assume the rights and responsibilities of freedom.
...
"Proponents of containment claim that Iraq is in a "box." But it is a box with no lid, no bottom, and whose sides are falling out. Within this box are definitive footprints of germ, chemical and nuclear programs, and from it has come blood money for Palestinian terrorists, and support for the international terrorism of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam."

The evidence for these "definitive footprints of germ, chemical and nuclear programs," from which comes "support for the international terrorism of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam," was nowhere in the NIE. (A "footprint" means there's an industrial infrastructure, which is more substantial than a few suspicious trucks or aluminum tubes.) Here's what Mohamed ElBaradei reported, with his usual 100% accuracy, on the "definite footprint of a nuclear program" one day after McCain's speech:

"As I have reported on numerous occasions, the IAEA concluded, by December 1998, that it had neutralized Iraq's past nuclear programme and that, therefore, there were no unresolved disarmament issues left at that time."

Senator McCain then gave his phony analytic framework:

"For a policy of containment to work, as it did in the Cold War, four components are necessary: reliable allies; a clear goal with a consistent doctrine; the economic and military capability to enforce the doctrine; and the political will to support the demands of the policy. ...We enjoy none of these assets today with regard to Iraq.

"Today, Iraq is growing stronger, not weaker, under a policy of containment. We are also dealing with a regime driven more by the unstable character of a risk-taking mass murderer than by the caution that mutually assured destruction encouraged in an enemy with a more intelligent appreciation of its vulnerability.
...

"The United States does not have reliable allies to implement a policy to contain Iraq. West Germany was a front-line state in the Cold War, as Saudi Arabia is today a front-line state and key "ally" in the confrontation with Iraq. During the Cold War, West Germany welcomed the deployment of hundreds of thousands of Americans and hundreds of military installations on its soil; placed few restrictions on American forces stationed there; worked hand-in-glove with us to conduct military training and exercises; and permitted us to station tactical and theater nuclear missiles on its soil sufficient to defend Western Europe.

Except the U.S. military was stationed on land, sea and air throughout the Persian Gulf, in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and in Saudi Arabia. Backstopping U.S. force, if necessary, were Israel's significant military resources.

Then there's McCain's delusional insinuation that Iraq's military power was ever comparable to that of the Soviet Union. McCain was ignoring that other dirty little secret, which was apparent to anybody who took a cursory look. The U.N. sanctions worked. Notwithstanding the kickbacks to Saddam, which involved skimming off the top, Iraq's industrial capabilities had been decimated by the sanctions imposed after the first Gulf war. As ElBaradei told the U.N. Security Council,

"[D]uring the past four years at the majority of Iraqi sites industrial capacity has deteriorated substantially due to the departure of the foreign support that was often present in the late '80s, the departure of large numbers of skilled Iraqi personnel in the past decade and the lack of consistent maintenance by Iraq of sophisticated equipment."

Senator Clinton's position was far more prosaic, given her affinity for the facts. For her, military action was always subject to one simple question, can we avert the threat of WMD by some other means? Here's what she announced to the media:

"Hillary Clinton tells Irish TV she is against war with Iraq," Irish Times, February 8, 2003

"Hillary Clinton prefers 'peaceful solution' in Iraq," Associated Press March 3, 2003 "[Clinton said the US] should continue its attempts to build an international alliance rather than going to war quickly with Iraq...[I]nspection is preferable to war, if it works, the New York Democrat said."

Senator Obama, like any honorable politician, goes after his opponent by framing the past in a way that's advantageous to him. Fair enough. But neither he, nor the media, are recounting the complete story in an entirely fair and evenhanded way.