Obama stance on Iraq shows evolving view

Senator saw 'obligation' in '04 to success of state

Barack Obama responded to a question at a party caucus in Casper, Wyo., yesterday. Rival Hillary Clinton has questioned whether Obama has been consistent in his position on withdrawing troops from Iraq. Barack Obama responded to a question at a party caucus in Casper, Wyo., yesterday. Rival Hillary Clinton has questioned whether Obama has been consistent in his position on withdrawing troops from Iraq. (DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / March 8, 2008

WASHINGTON - In July of 2004, the day after his speech at the Democratic convention catapulted him into the national spotlight, Barack Obama told a group of reporters in Boston that the United States had an "absolute obligation" to remain in Iraq long enough to make it a success.

"The failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster," he said at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, according to an audiotape of the session. "It would dishonor the 900-plus men and women who have already died. . . . It would be a betrayal of the promise that we made to the Iraqi people, and it would be hugely destabilizing from a national security perspective."

The statements are consistent with others Obama made at the time, emphasizing the need to stabilize Iraq despite his opposition to the US invasion. But they also represent perhaps his most forceful language in depicting withdrawal from crisis-ridden Iraq as a betrayal of the Iraqi people and a risk to national security.

Obama spoke out passionately against the war in 2002 as an Illinois state senator, while many in Congress were silent. But his thinking on how to resolve the crisis in Iraq evolved.

During his 2004 Senate race, he supported keeping troops in Iraq to stabilize the country. But starting in 2005, as violence engulfed the country, he grew increasingly disillusioned.

Now, Obama's views about the war have become a campaign issue, as Hillary Clinton - who voted for the war's authorization - has questioned whether Obama has been consistent in opposing the war.

Her husband, Bill, said Obama's depiction of his longstanding opposition to the war was a "fairy tale." And yesterday, news of an Obama adviser's comments that his promise to withdraw troops within 16 months represented only a "best-case scenario" further fanned questions about his Iraq views.

Yesterday, Obama struck back, declaring that Clinton "doesn't have any standing to question my position on this issue." And he added that, "I will bring this war to an end in 2009, so don't be confused."

In 2004, while supporting the Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kerry, Obama endorsed Kerry's view that the United States had too much at stake in Iraq to withdraw at that time. Since joining the Senate in 2005, Obama has taken incrementally tougher positions on Iraq, even as he sought to hear from a wide variety of voices about what should be done there, according to aides, advisers, and transcripts of his speeches.

In November of 2005, after it had become clear that US troops faced a raging insurgency, Obama argued in a speech before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that the US military should scale down its presence, but that US troops were "still part of the solution" in Iraq.

"We have to manage our exit in a responsible way," he told the council, "at the very least taking care not to plunge the country into an even deeper and perhaps irreparable crisis."

In January of 2006, Obama took his first trip to Iraq, staying two days, and while there he heard conflicting views on whether US troops should stay or go.

He expressed frustration with the failure of Iraqi leaders to resolve key disputes, telling reporters that "if we have not seen significant progress over the next few months, we need to have an honest conversation with Iraqis as to what our investment is."

But 2006 unfolded as a year of sectarian bloodshed, deepening Obama's conviction that the US effort was being squandered. He began to call for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. By that time, the call was far from unusual, however; other senators had called for a phased withdrawal earlier.

"The notion that the United States can't be more committed to the future of Iraq than Iraqis became much more of the prominent view" among Democrats and even some Republicans in 2006, said Rand Beers, a former foreign policy adviser to Kerry.

By November of that year, voters across the nation expressed anger over Iraq, handing control of Congress to Democrats.

A month later, the Iraq Study Group recommended reducing US military support for Iraq's government if its leaders failed to make progress on achieving political agreements.

An author of that report, Benjamin Rhodes, later joined Obama's campaign as a foreign policy adviser, and Obama adopted some of the group's language in his 2007 bill calling for all combat brigades to be withdrawn by March of 2008.

As Obama mulled a presidential run, he began to reach out to a series of military leaders, including those who did not agree with him on Iraq.

When Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary, organized two meetings for Obama with retired military officers, Danzig asked whether he should invite officers who opposed Obama's views. The answer was yes, Danzig recalled.

"One of the attractive things about Obama is the desire to get a range of views and process them himself rather than get a homogenized product or exclude people who aren't in sympathy with him," Danzig said.

In a separate meeting, Obama asked General Anthony Zinni, a critic of the war effort, what should be done in Iraq. Zinni told him: "I don't think you can abandon Iraq. The region is too important."

Despite those views, Obama's foreign policy advisory team began working on a detailed plan for bringing US troops home and managing the potential humanitarian crisis that could follow.

Obama's campaign set up a working group on Iraq, headed by Colin Kahl, a security studies professor at Georgetown University. In July 2007, Obama's top advisers and Iraq specialists, including Kahl, produced a memo that shaped Obama's core Iraq views, made public in a Sept. 12 speech: to bring home one to two combat brigades each month, with all brigades out in 16 months, and keep only a small number of troops in Iraq to protect US diplomats and launch limited, targeted strikes on Al Qaeda.

But this week, Obama adviser Samantha Power caused a stir when she told BBC's "Hard Talk" that Obama "will revisit" the plan when he becomes president.

"You can't make a commitment in March of 2008 about what circumstances are going to be like in January 2009," said Power, who resigned from the campaign yesterday over separate comments insulting Clinton. "He will, of course, not rely upon some plan that he has crafted as a presidential candidate or a US senator. He will rely upon an operational plan that he pulls together in consultation with people on the ground."

Obama insisted yesterday he would stick to his plan. But Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said voters should expect Obama's views on the war to shift.

"If you look at Obama's stands, he has taken different stands, or differently nuanced stands, based on his perceptions of the changing realities on the ground," Mead said. "As a rational human being, [if he is elected president] nine months from now, he'll have to do the same thing. He'll have to look carefully at the situation as it is, and make the best policy calls that he can."

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