WFIT

The Specter Of Iraq Haunts The Political Life Of Barack Obama

Jun 18, 2014
Originally published on June 18, 2014 7:08 pm

Iraq has long played a major role in President Obama's political life, going back to his earliest days as an Illinois state senator barely known outside of his Chicago district.

Obama's early anti-Iraq war stand would become a centerpiece of his first run for the White House, but it's since been a persistent crisis that's been his to manage, despite his every effort to put it behind him.

In late 2002, before the Iraq war had begun, then-state Sen. Obama appeared on Public Affairs, a Chicago television program hosted by Jeff Berkowitz. He was asked how, given the chance, he would have voted on the U.S. Senate's resolution to give President Bush authority to use military force in Iraq.

"If it had come to me in an up or down vote as it came, I think I would have agreed with our senior Sen. Dick Durbin and voted nay," Obama told Berkowitz.

That early opposition to the war would be a focus of his 2008 presidential campaign.

"When I am this party's nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq," he told supporters in Des Moines in 2007, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses. He was referring indirectly to Hillary Clinton, his main rival for the Democratic nomination. She had voted yes on the Iraq War Resolution.

"As president, I will end the war in Iraq. We will have our troops home in 16 months," he said, making a promise that would become a constant pledge throughout his campaign.

Though Obama won the White House, Iraq would not be an easy fix.

"I think the way he talked about it on the campaign was overly optimistic," said Joseph Nye, a professor and foreign policy specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "In American politics, we campaign in poetry and we govern in prose, and Obama's enough of a pragmatist that when he got into government, he quickly realized he couldn't meet the 16-month pledge."

Obama's tone changed once he became president and the war was his to lead.

"To understand where we need to go in Iraq, it is important for the American people to understand where we now stand," the president said on a visit to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a month after taking office. "Thanks in great measure to your service, and you sacrifice and your families' sacrifice, the situation in Iraq has improved."

And he did bring the war to an end — though it took more than twice as long as promised.

In December 2011, just days before the last U.S. troops would leave the country, he spoke at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. "Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success," he said.

He acknowledged that Iraq is not a perfect place and had challenges yet ahead. But he argued that "we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq."

Iraq, of course, has been anything stable since that December 2011 speech.

"It's ironic that it's Iraq that's coming back to haunt him," said Nye. "After all, he said Afghanistan was the war that we need to keep our eye on. But history is full of surprises like this."

It's a war the president warned against, but which he inherited. And his critics say he's made the situation worse by not being attentive enough to signs of trouble.

Obama says there will be no U.S. troops sent back into combat in Iraq — there's no public support for such a thing anyway.

Still, the public will judge how he handles the current crisis. Officially, the Iraq war may be over, but that wasn't the end of it for the president.

Not by far.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The war in Iraq has played a major role in President Obama's political life, going back to his earliest days as a state lawmaker in Illinois. His anti-Iraq war stand was a centerpiece of his first run for the White House. In his time as president, the war has been a persistent crisis. Well now, seemingly out of nowhere, Islamist extremists have captured important cities in Iraq and the president is once more confronted with limited options. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea traces the history.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start back in late 2002. The Iraq war had not yet begun and Barack Obama was an Illinois State Senator, barely known outside of his district. Appearing on a Chicago public affairs TV program, he was asked about a then recent vote in the U.S. Senate giving President Bush authority to use military force in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And how would you have voted? Would you have supported that resolution? Voted yay or nay?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If it had - If it had come to me in an up or down vote as it came, I think I would have agreed with our senior Senator Dick Durbin and voted nay.

GONYEA: That early opposition to the war would be a focus of his 2008 presidential campaign. This was in Des Moines just weeks before that year's Iowa caucuses.

OBAMA: When I am this party's nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq.

(Applause).

GONYEA: That line referred indirectly to Hillary Clinton, his main rival for the Democratic nomination. She had voted yes on that Iraq war resolution. Obama's stump speeches that year also included this pledge.

OBAMA: As president, I will end the war in Iraq. We will have our troops home in 16 months.

GONYEA: Obama won the White House but Iraq would not be an easy fix.

JOSEPH NYE: I think the way in which he talked about it in the campaign was overly optimistic.

GONYEA: Joseph Nye is a professor and foreign policy specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

NYE: In American politics, we campaign poetry and we govern in prose. And Obama's enough of a pragmatist that when he got into government he realized he couldn't meet the 16 month pledge.

GONYEA: Obama's tone changed once he became president and the war was his to lead. He visited Camp Lejeune in North Carolina a month after he took office.

OBAMA: To understand where we need to go in Iraq, it's important for the American people to understand where we now stand. Thanks in great measure to your service and your sacrifice and your families' sacrifices. The situation in Iraq has improved.

GONYEA: And he did bring the war to an end, though it took more than twice as long as promised. In December of 2011, he spoke at Fort Bragg just days before the last U.S. troops would leave the country.

OBAMA: Everything that American troops have done in Iraq - all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering - all of it has led to this moment of success.

GONYEA: He said Iraq is not a perfect place with challenges yet ahead. On that day he also included this.

OBAMA: But we' re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.

GONYEA: That was December of 2011. Iraq has been anything but stable since. Again, Harvard's Joseph Nye.

NYE: It's ironic that it's Iraq that is coming back to haunt him. After all, he had said that Afghanistan was the war to keep our eye on. But history is full of surprises like this.

GONYEA: It's a war the president warned against, but which he inherited. His critics say he's made situation worse by not being attentive enough to signs of trouble. Obama says there will be no U.S. troops sent back into combat in Iraq. There's no public support for such a thing anyway. Still the public will judge how he handles the current crisis. Officially, the Iraq war may be over, but that wasn't the end of it for the president - not by far. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.