Barack Obama the warmaker

It's hard to imagine the president supporting three wars if he were still a senator

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In thinking about Barack Obama's approach as president to America's wars, and about what Americans expected of him when he was elected in 2008, it is worth asking what positions Mr. Obama as senator would have taken on the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya wars at this point.

He wasn't in favor of the Iraq war in the first place. Now, eight years later, he finds on his plate a ready-made reason for leaving Iraq at the end of this year. That departure date is based firmly on an agreement arrived at between President George W. Bush and the elected Iraqi authorities.

Instead of the 50,000 U.S. troops there simply moving calmly to the exits on schedule, Americans are hearing that disagreements inside the Iraqi government are preventing it from requesting that the U.S. troops stay on. It seems implicit that, if the Iraqis ask, the Obama administration would agree to leave forces there. The reasons are unclear. One is that the Iraqis will fight with each other if we leave. My answer to that is, who cares? I cannot see why it is in the U.S. interest to put American troops between them, or among them, to keep them from fighting each other.

What is Mr. Obama's problem on this one? Has he been taken over by U.S. military leaders who would like to stay? Or the oil companies who want to dig in? Or the military contractors? Or the defense industry, which wants to continue to sell weapons? What has caused him now to be prepared to fold on the issue of leaving?

On Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has just given a speech putting forward a long, tedious timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces. Of 100,000, it has only 10,000 -- 10 percent -- out by the end of this year, with only 33 percent out by the 2012 elections. The rest might remain there until well into Mr. Obama's next term or someone else's first term. In taking this position, Mr. Obama again has caved in to the U.S. military, the contractors and the weapons industry or he is sacrificing whatever principles we might have once believed him to have in favor of electoral expediency.

Mr. Obama also has given up the ground American forces gained for him in eliminating Osama bin Laden -- the face of the problem that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place. And he is disregarding the fury of the American people at the spectacle of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his band of merry thieves. And he has chosen to disregard the cost of the war -- more than $100 billion a year that the United States is putting into a country whose gross domestic product is estimated generously at less than $20 billion per year.

So what is Mr. Obama's position on Afghanistan about?

He said early in the game that he would fight in Afghanistan, but he didn't say he would fight there forever. Changed circumstances and the need to ease strains with neighboring Pakistan -- which actually does matter in terms of U.S. interests -- could easily serve Mr. Obama as a rationale for withdrawing U.S. forces on an accelerated timetable. He had us "surge" with 30,000 new troops; what is wrong with having us now "surge" out?

Would not these have been the arguments that Barack Obama as senator, based on principle as well as logic, have made? Would he instead have favored a years-long withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending in 2014, maybe? It is frankly hard to imagine.

As far as Libya is concerned, it is quite possible that a Sen. Barack Obama would have favored U.S. military intervention there if he had found credible the threats that Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi was making. Would he have argued, however, that the United States should support the Libyan rebels' de facto partition of the country as the affair dragged on into a fourth month? Mr. Obama's hypothetical senatorial position on U.S. military operations in Libya would have been arrived at, in part, in the context of the United States still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, leaving aside analysis of what has caused Mr. Obama to abandon the principles that led him to oppose the Iraq war and how likely it is that by now as a senator he would have grown cold on pursuing the Afghanistan war into its 11th-and-beyond years, what is to be done to deflect him from endless U.S. warmaking?

President Lyndon B. Johnson threw in his hand on the Vietnam war in 1968 when it was clear that he would be challenged for the Democratic nomination by the antiwar movement in the form of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Rather than face the possible loss of the nomination, Mr. Johnson announced he would not run and would give his full attention to concluding the war.

Now we have three wars and the horrendous U.S. financial situation -- end-to-end budget deficits, a spiraling national debt and a big military budget.

A challenge to Mr. Obama on the wars from a Republican candidate is not likely. Republicans traditionally have never passed up a chance to go after Democrats for being soft on security. There may be some gradations among them in fervor for big military budgets, but 2008 presidential candidate Sen. John McCain probably sets the standard for the party in never having seen a war he didn't like. (He even saw illegal aliens as responsible for the fires in Arizona until asked for evidence.)

Therefore, it would probably take a Democrat challenging Mr. Obama for the nomination, capitalizing on opposition inside the party and among the population to the wars, to push him toward a more cogent position. It is hard to see exactly who that might be.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, although his antiwar position is solid, is sometimes hard to take seriously. Former Sen. Russ Feingold probably has the nerve for a race against Mr. Obama but lacks a platform, having lost the 2010 senatorial election. It might be enough just for some Democrat to announce his candidacy, unmasking Mr. Obama's vulnerability for having betrayed his principles on the wars, to bring Mr. Obama to his senses.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1976).


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