President Obama Keeps Elevating Iraq War Supporters

During the 2008 election, he argued that supporting the war was proof of inferior foreign-affairs judgment. You'd never know it now.


hillary clinton john kerry.jpg
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Four years ago, Barack Obama campaigned for the Democratic nomination against rivals who had comparatively longer resumes. But he persuasively argued that the experience of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Joe Biden ought to be discounted, because their support for the 2002 authorization for the use of force in Iraq proved that their judgment was inferior to less experienced hands who nevertheless foresaw the Bush Administration's folly. 

"It was Washington's conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress," stated a memo penned by Samantha Powers and released by the Obama campaign. "Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve. Barack Obama defied conventional wisdom and opposed invading Iraq. He did so at a time when some told him that doing so would doom his political future." In the general election, the same argument was marshaled against John McCain. Absent his early rhetorical opposition to the Iraq War, it's unlikely Obama would have become president.

What's amazing, four years later, is how much influence Iraq War supporters still have in U.S. foreign affairs. After persuasively arguing that Democratic support for the conflict was disqualifying, Obama proceeded to choose Joe Biden as his running mate and Hilary Clinton as his secretary of state. He initially wanted to replace Clinton with Susan Rice, who failed in 2002 to take a clear position on the invasion. For unrelated reasons, she is no longer seeking the job. Multiple reports suggest it has been offered instead to John Kerry, yet another Democrat who voted with the Bush Administration and against the party's small anti-war faction in 2002. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta last year described the Iraq War as "worth it." And Republican Chuck Hagel, who may replace him, voted for the 2002 Iraq War resolution too.

Most of these people turned against the Iraq War, some sooner rather than later. It is nevertheless evident that Obama abandoned the reasoning that helped propel him to the presidency in 2008. Perhaps that calls the honesty of his original campaign arguments into question, but the significance of his reversal is mostly in the message it sends to establishment politicians. Obama's election seemed to suggest, after a period in which anti-war folks were besieged, there was a political incentive to oppose imprudent wars after all -- that in time, people on the right side of history would be rewarded and those on the wrong side punished. In fact, Obama has done little to change the prevailing incentive system. It turns out that sticking with the establishment consensus never ends in being marginalized.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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