What Happened: Obama Opposed a "Dumb War" & McCain Embraced It





Mr. Toplin, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, is the author of a dozen books. His most recent is Radical Conservatism: The Right's Political Religion.

Pundits have been wondering if revelations about the inept way that George W. Bush led America into Iraq, reported in Scott McClellan's new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, will make an impact on Senator John McCain's presidential quest. McClellan, the former White House Press Secretary, claims Bush was "shading the truth" when warning about WMDs and that the decision to invade Iraq "was a serious strategic blunder." McCain was an enthusiastic defender of U.S. military action in Iraq at the time when discussions about bombing and invasion were under consideration. If Barack Obama wins the Democratic presidential nomination, debates about the war are likely to focus on the positions each candidate took during the crucial period when U.S. leaders explored ways to deal with Saddam Hussein.

John McCain articulated his primary case for war in an op-ed article published in the New York Times on March 12, 2003, just two days before U.S. armed forces started the bombing of Baghdad. Obama's most notable statement about decision-making came at a Chicago rally on October 2, 2002 that occurred nine days before the Senate voted to authorize military action. Now, more than five years later, McCain's optimistic predictions about the positive consequences of armed intervention look deeply mistaken, while Obama's warnings about the risks associated with military action appear remarkably insightful.

In his Times article John McCain pointed out that Saddam Hussein refused to "give up his weapons of mass destruction," despite years of sanctions against his government. McCain believed the Iraqi dictator would "continue to build an arsenal of the world's most destructive weapons" if he was not stopped quickly. At the time, UN inspectors reported that they had not discovered major stockpiles of WMDs in Iraq, and they asked for more time to continue their investigations. McCain showed impatience with the UN's leaders. He berated them for lack of resolve, particularly for failing to enforce their own resolutions.

John McCain assured readers that the results of US intervention would prove positive. He declared that "no one can plausibly argue that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values." McCain said the invasion would likely reduce antipathy towards the United States in the Islamic world, for Islamic peoples would see "demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end" of a ruthless regime. Our armed forces would fight for "peace" in Iraq, McCain promised, "a peace built on more secure foundations than are found today in the Middle East."

John McCain's assessments and predictions contrasted sharply with the ones presented by Barack Obama in October of 2002. Obama said he did not oppose all wars but certainly rejected a "dumb war" and a "rash war." He suggested the case for war was being advanced by ideologues in the Bush Administration as well as by Karl Rove and other political advisers who sought to distract the public. Barack Obama recognized that Saddam Hussein was a brutal man but concluded that Iraq posed no imminent threat to its neighbors or to the United States. Obama thought Saddam Hussein could be contained through pressures applied by the international community, and eventually he would "fall into the dustbin of history."

Like McCain, Obama speculated about the consequences of military engagement, but he came up with a different scenario. Obama said a successful war against Iraq would require "a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Invasion without a clear rationale and without firm international support "will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses in the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda," he warned.

From today's perspective, Barack Obama's pre-war judgments look prescient, and John McCain's sound naive.

Obama's description of the rush to war and his observations about the unintended consequences of U.S. military action in Iraq are now familiar elements in the respected historical accounts of recent events. Scott McClellan's recent contribution to that history accentuates some of the key points Obama made in his speech. McClellan, like Obama in 2002, argues that Bush and his advisers orchestrated a propaganda campaign to sell the war even though the Administration lacked strong intelligence that verified the presence of WMDs. McClellan in 2008, like Obama in 2002, criticizes President Bush for naively thinking that an invasion of Iraq was likely to transform the Middle East in a positive way and bring enduring peace to the region.

The contrast between Obama's assessment of the pre-war situation and McCain's is striking. While Obama urged the kind of vigorous debate about decision-making that Scott McClellan wishes the Administration had pursued during the buildup toward war, McCain expressed confident speculation about the sunny consequences of U.S. military action in Iraq. In 2003 McCain sounded very much like the George Bush that Scott McClellan admonishes in What Happened.

The judgments these candidates made regarding the decision to go to war deserve scrutiny by the press and the public. McCain's and Obama's essays and speeches cannot reveal all that we would like to know about how these individuals are likely to respond to international challenges in the future, but the remarks do provide some useful information about their skill in thinking about the long-term consequences of American actions.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/8/2008

I don't think there is much dispute about what McCain and Obama felt and do feel about Iraq. And their central difference remains intact, e.g.,

"(President Bush thought) that an invasion of Iraq was likely to transform the Middle East in a positive way and bring enduring peace to the region;" and

"McCain (wrote) that the results of U.S. intervention would prove positive."

I concur with both of those statements, while you and Obama still do not.

But the truth is growing more obvious every day. From now until Nov. 4 every reference to Iraq will help McCain, which is why he is trying to get Obama to go there, by drawing more people to look at what has actually happened there, i.e., we won. Obama's campaign may soon find it necessary to send him to Iraq to praise the troops and their generals to the skies and pledge never to cut and run. That is probably the best he can do under the circumstances.

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