Watching Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) on NBC's Meet the Press today, I came away torn about whether his statement on Iraq was laudable or damnable.
As Media Matters reports, Tim Russert asked Obama about why he had made statements over the years suggesting that even though he opposed the Iraq War, he could understand why Democrats in Congress at the time may have voted for it. Here was Obama's response:
"[That statement] was made with an interview with a guy named Tim Russert on Meet the Press during the convention when we had a nominee for the presidency and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war, so it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party's nominees' decisions when it came to Iraq."
Before exploring this comment, let's make sure it has some context. Obama wasn't just silent in 2004 on the war, he was silent in 2005, too. Here's an excerpt of my previous piece for The Nation on Obama:
Then there is the Iraq War. Obama says that during his 2004 election campaign he 'loudly and vigorously' opposed the war. As The New Yorker noted, 'many had been drawn initially by Obama's early opposition to the invasion.' But 'when his speech at the antiwar rally in 2002 was quietly removed from his campaign Web site,' the magazine reported, 'activists found that to be an ominous sign'-one that foreshadowed Obama's first months in the Senate. Indeed, through much of 2005, Obama said little about Iraq, displaying a noticeable deference to Washington's bipartisan foreign policy elite, which had pushed the war. One of Obama's first votes as a senator was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her integral role in pushing the now-debunked propaganda about Iraq's WMD.
So here's what I wonder: Is it a laudable thing that Obama basically kept quiet in 2004 for, as he basically said, the good of the Democratic ticket? Or is damnable, and should he have continued to push his party to stop the war?
As an aside: I'm not necessarily sure I believe that Obama's explanation is actually the full explanation for his reticence. Because he was also silent in 2005, after the election was over, I get the feeling that he "loudly and vigorously" opposed the Iraq War as an Illinois Senate primary candidate when he was an underdog in that race, but then when he was a sure winner in the general election and then during his short pre-presidential-primary-candidate days in the Senate, he didn't see a political necessity (and perhaps perceived political danger) in continuing to strongly voice his opposition. That was, in fact, precisely the time he was making these occasional statements suggesting that he could understand other people voting for the war.
But most politicians are politicians - they act, at least in part, out of opportunity for themselves. So the "whys" of Obama's silence are really less important going forward than the "whether" - whether it was good or bad that he kept silent? I say that's more important because it tells us about what kind of decision-making we can expect from him as a president not just on Iraq, but on all issues.
I'm torn on this, and could make a case for both sides here. I am irritated that as one of the most famous Democrats in America at the time (especially post-convention speech), he didn't voice stronger opposition to move his party - and that he said he didn't do it because basically, he didn't want to embarrass his party. Then again, I can see the argument that Democrats winning in 2004 would have probably ended the war a lot sooner than Bush, and so at that moment, helping the party win the presidency was worth staying quiet for. But then again, too, I can see the argument that had someone like Obama been more aggressive in opposing the war during 2004, he might have pulled his party into a more strongly antiwar position which may have helped the party actually win the 2004 election, much like Ned Lamont's forcing the party to more frontally challenge Bush on the war helped Democrats win in 2006.
What do you think about this?
UPDATE: A commenter points out this excerpt from a new Atlantic Monthly article:
Initially, Obama did try to avoid publicity, turning down repeated requests to appear on national television, as well as invitations to speak before Democratic groups. "We wanted to be mindful of our place," Robert Gibbs, his spokesman, told me. Even on the issue of Iraq, which dominated 2005, Obama, an opponent of the invasion from the beginning, passed up the chance to speak out. "He could have been the moral voice, the moral authority on Iraq," one of Obama's closest advisers told me. "But he was just a freshman senator. It would have been presumptuous of him to take that lead."
Now, I have to say, that is pretty screwed up - and damnable. A war is going on - one that Obama opposes. His people admit he could have been the moral leader against it, but decided not to, essentially out of deference to the Senate club's etiquette. Without commenting on the original question of whether his silence in 2004 was laudable or damnable, I have to say that this Atlantic Monthly excerpt makes his silence in 2005 damnable, to say the least.
Cross-posted from Credo Action