Obama, the War, and the Opportunity

Michael Crowley, author of the best dissection of Hillary Clinton's support for the 2002 Iraq AUMF (one of about a million TNR articles that seem to be missing from their web archives [UPDATE: here it is]), has a great new piece up about Barack Obama's record on the war. Here's the bottom line:

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.

I'm less interested, however, in the past for its own sake than I am in the past for what it makes possible in the future. I don't know if you've heard, but I wrote a book, Heads in the Sand that will be out in April. It's about the causes and consequences of the Democratic Party's failure to present a coherent strategic alternative to the Bush foreign policy in the post-9/11 world.

One observation I make is that a record of support for the war resolution makes it difficult to present such an alternative. John Kerry, for example, would now and again start making a very compelling argument about Iraq as strategic distraction that undermined our ability to combat al-Qaeda. I remember watching the first Bush-Kerry debate with friends and the thrill that overtook the room at what I think was Kerry's best moment of the entire campaign:

Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, "The enemy attacked us."

Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist.

Unfortunately, this line of argument couldn't really be made central to Kerry's campaign because, after all, Kerry had voted for the war resolution and Kerry was so determined to rebut the flip-flopper charge that he didn't dare just say he'd made a mistake. So he switched back over time to less compelling arguments about implementation, nitpicking about the details of the inspections process, etc.

Now of course there's more to an alternative strategy than just that. There are several different questions in play -- unilateral preventive war or multilateral arms control as the preferred method of pursuing non-proliferation policy, an ever-expanding "war on terror" or a narrowly focused campaign against al-Qaeda, an effort to coercively reshape political institutions throughout the Muslim world or an effort to distance ourselves somewhat from unpopular regimes, a full-throttle assertion of US military hegemony or an effort to use our power to build and sustain a liberal world order. But Iraq stands at the intersection of a lot of these issues, and it's a lot easier to make the case for a different approach if you can credibly put distance between yourself and Iraq and, of course, having reached a different conclusion about Iraq is at least imperfect evidence that the person in question actually believes in a different strategy.

To tie this back to the campaign, Obama hasn't yet said or done everything that I'd like to see him do by any means. He has, however, done some things. And he's repeatedly suggested a desire to wage that kind of campaign against John McCain. Clinton, by contrast, has shown a real fondness for opportunistic digs and indicated that her view is that she'll do better at arguing with McCain about security because she's more hawkish. But both candidates have given some positive indications and some negative ones, and both of them can and should do more -- the competition between them has been disappointingly free of anything even resembling an argument about doctrine. Thus far, though, Obama's approach shows more promise, and their different stances are an important reason why.