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The man from Hyde Park.

On the eve of Independence Day, Barack Obama signaled that he was altering aspects of his position on the war in Iraq. The Democratic nominee had previously promised a firm 16-month timetable for withdrawal. But addressing reporters in Fargo, North Dakota, he said, "I've always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed, and when I go to Iraq and I have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

Obama's opposition to the Iraq War and his pledge to withdraw all combat troops by mid-2010 have been the core of his claim to superior judgement and principal features distinguishing his foreign-policy vision from John McCain's. After two weeks of reversals, this "refinement" came at the worst possible time and drew renewed attention to Obama's anemic record as a war opponent and his habit of accommodating the prevailing consensus.

Obama immediately recognized the political danger posed by any perceived slackening of his opposition to the war and reaffirmed his intention to bring the troops home. But the promised consultation with "commanders on the ground" and suggestion that withdrawal schedules should be premised on Iraqi stability bear eerie traces of President Bush's deference to field officers and open-ended pledges that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Making U.S. withdrawal contingent on Iraqi stability puts the American interest second--and ensures that we will maintain the occupation for years to come. What Obama's admirers praise as pragmatic adjustment appears to skeptics as willingness to revise away even his most basic policy commitments.

Obama's dramatic rise in Illinois and national politics has been forever linked with the speech he gave to an antiwar rally in Chicago in the autumn of 2002. Given the pro-war fervor sweeping the country at that time, Obama has been credited with great political courage. But he was taking a stand that a left-liberal Democratic state senator from South Side Chicago was obliged to take. According to Ryan Lizza's recent article in The New Yorker on Obama's Chicago roots, the organizer of the rally, Bettylu Saltzman, said of Obama, "He was a Hyde Park state senator. He had to oppose the war!"

This was the beginning of what Bill Clinton would dub "the biggest fairy tale I have heard," referring to Obama's self-presentation as a consistent, outspoken antiwar leader. During his brief tenure in the Senate, Obama avoided taking a leadership role on the war and typically voted with his formerly pro-war Democratic colleagues rather than the stronger antiwar wing of the party aligned with Wisconsin's Russ Feingold. As Robert Dreyfuss reported in an extensive article on Obama's foreign policy in The Nation, a veteran House Democratic staffer noted, "In that very critical period from January to mid-April 2007, when we were trying to reduce funding for the war, he was very hard to pin down." What Obama's "refinement" represents is not so much a major break with his previous policy as confirmation of his cautious, self-interested positioning all along.

Had the Illinois legislator not been identified as an early opponent of the war, it is difficult to imagine how this first-term senator could have made foreign-policy judgement a central theme of his campaign. Without the distinction for prescience he earned by taking the conventional Hyde Park position, Obama would have faced much more resistance from progressive activists otherwise skeptical of his accommodating rhetorical style and paeans to bipartisanship. More importantly, he would not have been able to use Hillary Clinton's support for the invasion against her in what became the most effective attack against her claims of experience. Yet even in his antiwar stance, he was engaged in accommodation with the prevailing winds of his immediate political environment.

This brings us to the most appalling of Obama's recent reversals, his embrace of the FISA Amendments Act, the compromise bill that grants telecom immunity and authorizes ongoing warrantless wiretapping. Obama had promised to support a filibuster against it, but voted for both cloture and final passage of the bill in a transparent betrayal of both his campaign pledge and American civil liberties. If he was willing to throw out a clear promise on such a vital matter of constitutional protection to avoid being attacked as weak on national security, why should antiwar voters have any confidence that he will not continue to "refine" his commitment on withdrawal until it no longer exists?
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Title Annotation:Barack Obama
Author:Larison, Daniel
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 28, 2008
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