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Cinderella Story

Is Obama's Iraq record really a fairy tale?

It was a cool, damp afternoon when Barack Obama arrived to speak at an antiwar rally in Chicago's Federal Plaza on October 2, 2002. The scene was ragtag. A metal tower had been festooned with strips of white cloth upon which rally attendees wrote personalized peace messages. Protesters danced to a band featuring kazoos and a marching skeleton. Jesse Jackson was to be the day's marquee speaker. But it was Obama, wearing a war is not an option lapel pin, who stole the show. Obama's 926-word speech denounced a "dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics." The crowd was electrified. "I stood there and listened to him give that speech and said, 'Who is this guy?'" says Jennifer Spitz, one of the rally's organizers. Eventually, Spitz says, she turned to the person next to her and declared: "He needs to be president!"

Obama has repeatedly returned to his remarks from that day: as evidence of his wisdom, as a stark contrast with Hillary Clinton, who has struggled to explain her vote to authorize war. "The story of his campaign is really the story of that speech and his opposition to Iraq," Clinton herself explained on "Meet the Press" last month. But, according to the Clinton campaign, there's more to the story than that. It has posited its own counternarrative of Obama's Iraq war, where he followed his stirring oration in Chicago with inconsistent rhetoric and political timidity. In a March 2007 conference call with campaign donors, Bill Clinton complained that Obama only became "the raging hero of the antiwar crowd on the Internet" thanks to a "factually inaccurate" depiction of his antiwar bona fides. In January, Clinton described the press's portrayal of Obama's Iraq stance as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

The press's failure to closely examine Obama's Iraq record is a source of perpetual frustration for the Clinton camp--and a fair gripe. It has allowed Obama's supporters to mythologize him as a fearless crusader. At the same time, it has enabled the Clintons to mount overzealous attacks on his record.

Many of the Clintons' specific attacks on Obama are unfair distortions. But it's also true that a close look at his Iraq record reveals more nuance than the Obama campaign acknowledges. It shows that Obama is cautious and pragmatic, hardly immune from political pressures, and sometimes prone to shading his rhetoric for convenience. But, ultimately, in substantive policy terms, he is also open to intellectual reexamination based on changing events. This may not be quite the Obama of the popular imagination, and it is certainly not the Obama of his own campaign ads. Nor is it, after 2002, substantially different from Hillary Clinton's own course on Iraq. But it is no "fairy tale," either.

On the last weekend of September 2002, Marilyn Katz, a p.r. maven and former aide to Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, was awoken by a phone call from her old friend BettyLu Saltzman. "We have to do something about Bush's drive to war, " said Saltzman, a wealthy political gadfly in her seventies. Katz agreed. The two women contacted friends on the local liberal-activist circuit--"a bunch of old sixties radicals," says Katz--about staging a demonstration. A slew of local politicians were invited to speak. Few accepted. One of them was Obama.

It is commonly held that Hillary Clinton simply blew with the political winds by supporting the Senate war resolution--she allegedly feared looking "weak" on national security--while Obama took a bold risk. In a September 26, 2007, debate at Dartmouth College, Obama congratulated himself for "telling the truth to the American people even when it's tough, which I did in 2002, standing up against this war at a time where it was very unpopular. And I was risking my political career, because I was in the middle of a U.S. Senate race."

At a minimum, that's an overstatement. With war looming in the fall of 2002, Obama was preparing a long-shot run for an open U.S. Senate seat, which he would not formally announce until the following January. At least two other Democrats were also gearing up, including a wealthy white businessman. Obama's best shot at the Democratic nomination involved consolidating a coalition of lakefront liberals and African Americans. "He knew, and I knew, that the liberal progressives were key in any Democratic primary," says Dan Shomon, Obama's then-campaign manager. Shomon insists politics were secondary to Obama's sincere antiwar ardor. Still, though it may have been unpopular to oppose the war in Washington, that was not the case among liberals in Chicago--among the first cities to pass an antiwar resolution. (Obama also had an interest in pleasing Saltzman. The spunky grandmother was an important local ally who has since raised more than $50,000 for his campaign.)

Nor was opposing the war likely to threaten Obama in a general election. Illinois is a reliably blue state, carried easily by Al Gore and John Kerry. The state's only Democratic senator at the time, Dick Durbin (as well as eight of Illinois's nine Democrats in the House), ultimately opposed the Iraq resolution. Moreover, Obama was a long-shot U.S. Senate candidate likely to lose and remain in his liberal Hyde Park State Senate district, probably among the nation's least pro-war enclaves.

There's no reason to think that Obama's war position was anything but sincere. But, given how many people have noted the perceived political calculation of Clinton's vote for the Iraq resolution, it's only fair to note that Obama's war position happened to dovetail with his own ambitions. Moreover, even Shomon concedes that Obama discussed the politics of his speech beforehand. "What about the people that are for the war?" Obama asked him. "Am I gonna have damage politically?"

The Clintonites actually tend to concede the valor of Obama's speech. Instead, they portray him as a changeling who has shaded his war position for political convenience ever since. One favorite charge is that Obama obscured his speech after becoming a Senate candidate. "You gave a great speech in 2002 opposing the war in Iraq," Hillary said at a January 21 debate, adding that, "by the next year, the speech was off your website." The Clinton campaign cites as the basis for this claim an online magazine called The Black Commentator, which first noted the speech's disappearance in June 2003. Obama reposted the speech in response to the criticism. But, several months later, his campaign removed it again (apparently) in the course of a site redesign.

The Clintonites pounce on this bit of online history, especially given that Obama has publicly admitted some doubt about his war stance during this period. In his 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope, he confesses that, when he saw George Bush deliver his "Mission Accomplished" speech from the deck of an aircraft carrier, "I began to suspect that I might have been wrong" about the war. And, in his March 28 CNN interview, before the fall of Baghdad, Obama certainly didn't sound like a Dennis Kucinich-style antiwar crusader. Asked by host Aaron Brown whether the United States was isolated in the world, Obama replied that "the overriding concern right now is the safety of the troops." He added that Americans "absolutely want to make sure that the troops have sufficient support to be able to win." But that was hardly different from the cautiously patriotic tone numerous other war critics adopted at a time when fighting was underway. And, in many other cases, Obama stood firmly by his initial war opposition. Even in mid-April 2003, just days after a Saddam Hussein statue was famously toppled in Baghdad--and at a time when a New York Times poll found that 79 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the war--Obama, speaking to a Chicago paper, warned that Bush "is riding high on the whole Iraq situation for the moment, but ... [t]he jury is still out." By February 2004, long after the time Hillary has charged he scrubbed his war speech from his website, Obama was publicly taunting his Senate primary opponents for failing to oppose Bush's "dumb war."

He did, however, strike a different tone during his star turn at the Democratic National Convention that July. Obama's inspiring keynote address barely mentioned the war. ("There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it," he declared.) More notably, in interviews around that time, Obama refused to say flatly that he would have voted against the 2002 congressional war resolution. "I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports," Obama told The New York Times on July 26. "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that, from my vantage point, the case was not made." In other interviews that week, Obama said, "[T]here is room for disagreement" over initiating the war, and that "I didn't have the information that was available to senators."

Obama later justified these comments as an effort to avoid a split with his party's presidential ticket: Both John Kerry and John Edwards had voted for the war, after all. Yet this explanation was undermined when Obama repeated the point more than two years later. "I'm always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought [the war] was such a bad idea was that I didn't have the benefit of U.S. intelligence," he told The New Yorker's David Remnick in October 2006. "And, for those that did, it might have led to a different set of choices."

Obama's repeated emphasis on classified intelligence is curious. He never questioned Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction. In October 2002, he acknowledged that Saddam has "developed chemical and biological weapons, and [has] coveted nuclear capacity." But, Obama argued, Saddam "poses no imminent and direct threat" and, "in concert with the international community, he can be contained until...he falls away into the dustbin of history." The power of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) lay in its firm assertion that Saddam had a frightful WMD arsenal. But the NIE did not cast Saddam as an imminent threat. If Obama already accepted that Saddam had WMD, why would the intelligence have changed his view about war? It's a mystery--one that drives the Clintonites mad. "To make the argument that your candidacy is premised on your superior judgment on this issue and then to fudge it a half-dozen times means you weren't so sure of your judgment," says a pro-Hillary former Clinton administration official.

Moreover, say Hillary's allies, at times Obama has dispensed with the caveats. In November of 2004, Obama appeared on the "Charlie Rose" show. "If you had been a member of the Senate, you would have voted against the resolution?" Rose asked. "Yes," Obama flatly replied.

For months after his arrival in Washington, Obama was mostly a bit player in the war debate. His defenders say this was driven by his desire to maintain a low profile and reasonable expectations, part of a broader strategy known in Obama's offices as "The Plan." As detailed by Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, The Plan--designed by top Obama aides--explicitly set out to cool Obama's white-hot, post-Democratic convention star power. Ironically, there was a recent model for that tactic: "He took Hillary Clinton's approach to his first year in the Senate," says one Obama adviser. "He was not a grandstander."

Obama consciously shied from controversy. And he was particularly cautious on Iraq. "He took a very skeptical wait-and-see stance," says one Senate foreign policy aide. But so did many other Senate Democrats, including Joe Biden, Carl Levin, and Clinton herself. Even antiwar Democrats came to believe that, however ill-advised the war may have been, America had a responsibility to secure and stabilize the country. (Hence Obama's July 2004 claim to the Tribune that "[t]here's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage." This was clearly a reference to the occupation and not the invasion--a distinction Clinton supporters have repeatedly sought to blur.) Obama even hinted in July of that year that he could support higher troop levels, albeit with the goal of ending the occupation faster. When he finally gave a major Iraq speech in November 2005, he only called for a gradual troop drawdown--"Notice that I say 'reduce,' and not 'fully withdraw'"--even though liberals like Democratic Senator Russ Feingold had already proposed a complete withdrawal by the end of the following year. Curiously, Obama now found himself arguing that he was courting another kind of political risk--that of being too pro-war. "It is arguable that the best politics going into '06 would be a clear, succinct message: 'Let's bring our troops home,'" he told the Tribune in December 2005. "But whether that's the best policy right now, I don't feel comfortable saying it is."

For months, Obama resisted entreaties by liberal war opponents to vote against funding for the war that did not impose timelines for troop withdrawal. As the Clintonites eagerly note, however, Obama said in 2003 he would have voted against the $87 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill that John Kerry famously voted both for and against. (Obama has said he opposed that bill because it contained no-bid contracts, although, in one November 2003 appearance, he depicted voting against the bill more generally as a way for Democrats to resist "getting steamrolled" by Bush.)

It wasn't until January 2007, a month before formally declaring his candidacy, that Obama finally offered a withdrawal plan with a fixed timetable. He didn't conceive his plan in a vacuum, however. By this point, a broad political consensus held that Iraq was unsalvageable, and the Democratic left wing had been demanding such a stance for months. By spring, John Edwards was haranguing his former Senate colleagues for caving to Bush. And, inside the Senate, Obama and Clinton cautiously circled each other. When the Senate voted on war funding last May, Obama waited until nearly all his colleagues voted before casting, for the first time on such a bill, his own "nay." To be sure, there was a Senate colleague who waited even longer to make her vote known: Hillary Clinton.

In January 2006, Obama embarked on his first (and only) trip to Iraq. The Audacity of Hope recounts the strange journey, in which Obama overnights in a palace pool house once reserved for Saddam and his guests. As he watches a Redskins game played 6,000 miles away, Obama can hear mortar explosions in the night. After one press conference, he arranges an off-the-record chat with reporters. When he asks whether a troop withdrawal would ease tensions in the country, one tells him that "the country would collapse into civil war within weeks." But, later, Obama hears from a Marine who counsels that the United States needs to leave Iraq to save it. "When battle hardened Marine officers suggest we pull out and skeptical foreign correspondents suggest that we stay, there are no easy answers to be had," he writes.

As he campaigns for his party's nomination, Obama may have at last found an easy answer. But his occasional moments of sympathy for the senators who voted for the war, and his reluctance to adopt controversial post-war positions, suggest that Obama himself may understand that the issue is more complicated than his condemnations of Hillary Clinton's judgment.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.