It was a younger Barack Obama who stood in the bitter cold in Springfield, Ill., to declare that the American military must butt out of "someone else's civil war" in the Middle East and drew applause when he said it was time to let the Iraqis know "that we will not be there forever." But that was 2007, and this is 2015.
Eight years to the day after Obama launched a campaign based on hope and change, his White House is lobbying Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of American military force in that still-raging civil war. Only this time, the military operations permitted by the AUMF will have targets in Syria as well as in Iraq.
With the administration beginning briefings on that new authorization Tuesday night in preparation for its expected submission Wednesday, perhaps nothing better captures the evolution of Obama's policies and the reality that the world always seems simpler to candidates than to presidents. In a headline that had to send shudders through Obama loyalists, National Public Radio on Tuesday linked Obama to his predecessor George W. Bush with this headline: "In White House Memory, A-U-M-F Translates to B-U-S-H."
Obama has been launching attacks on the Islamic State extremists based on an authorization requested by Bush and adopted just days after the Sept. 11 attacks—the same measure he has said should be repealed. A new one is needed, in part, because the Islamic State did not even exist at the time of 9/11, so technically it is not covered. Additionally, a new resolution would give the president more Republican buy-in to the current campaign.
None of that makes the turnaround for Obama less dramatic. It is impossible to overstate the importance of his antiwar stance in the battle with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
"It gave him a link to the progressives on the Left who were looking for something new," recalled Bill Schneider, resident scholar at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. "They wanted to turn the page, and his antiwar message really excited them. It was totally key to his winning Iowa."
Before his win in those caucuses in an overwhelmingly white state, Obama had attracted little support in other states, even from African-Americans, whose leaders were lined up behind Clinton. For the rest of the nomination battle, Clinton was on the defensive trying to explain her vote for the AUMF that made the Iraq War possible. (Obama, then in the Illinois state Senate, didn't have to take that vote.)
Now, it is Obama asking Congress to give him the OK to wage war—even if he insists he will not use ground troops. But Obama is trying to show clear differences in the way he and Bush approach their use of the military. If Bush stands accused of recklessness and an eagerness to wage war, Obama is trying to offer caution—or as the administration put it last Friday, "strategic patience."
That was the description of Obama's foreign policy in the National Security Strategy released on Friday by National Security Adviser Susan Rice. The president had first used that phrase in an interview with NPR last year. "One of the things I've learned over six years—and it doesn't always suit the news cycle—is having some strategic patience," he said then. The White House national security strategy outline, which is required by law, promised to "resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear." It added, "The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence."
The phrase has been derided by critics and neoconservatives who would like less patience and more of a sense of urgency in U.S. actions both against ISIS and in Ukraine. But it is not a coincidence that the security strategy document was released before the AUMF was submitted to Congress. As Schneider noted, this White House "doesn't want to be remembered for starting wars."
The White House also has been wary of attack from its left, from the same progressives who helped propel Obama to that victory in Iowa and the later primaries and caucuses in 2008. There has not been a loud groundswell of opposition, though. Schneider attributes that to the nature of the enemy.
"ISIS horrifies everybody—progressives and conservatives and everyone else," he told National Journal. "ISIS is a very consensual target because its practices are brutal and it commits atrocities. No one can countenance that, and Democrats have no problem in the United States forcefully resisting it."
It is because of the enemy and because of a "strategic patience" policy that the president believes he is staying true to the policy he promised on that cold day in Springfield when he pledged not to reflexively commit American troops overseas.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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