July 18, 2008
On Tuesday, Barack Obama gave an address on the Iraq War. It was a bizarre speech, as if it had been written two years ago—when it would have made more sense. Liberals ought to hate the speech. It will make their side vulnerable to the common conservative charge that they ignore crucial facts in favor of manufacturing their own reality.
The crucial facts in this case—absent two years ago—and which have been emphasized repeatedly in recent months by bibles of the left, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, is that the reconstruction effort in Iraq has improved tremendously under General Petraeus, to the point where we are not only winning in Iraq but, some say, we may have already won. Obama’s speech is a troubling example of ignoring everything that has happened for the better over the last 18 months, suggestive instead of a defeated nation that needs to immediately hop on the last helicopter out of Saigon.
Obama probably thinks this speech will win him points among the angry extremists that fortify his base (which it will), but it will hurt him among responsible, fair-minded liberals and especially among the moderates that will decide this election. It is a giant softball for John McCain and for the GOP to turn into ad spots. It plays right into John McCain’s chief strength and against Obama’s chief liability: their divergent experience in foreign and security policy. It was a bad political move for a candidate who is ahead in the polls.
There was so much in this speech that merits a response, but I would like to draw attention to its most fatal flaw, which apparently stills persists among the far left, which is actually where Barack Obama—ranked the most liberal member of the Senate by the non-partisan National Journal—sits on the ideological spectrum. In this speech, Obama argued that the true battle against terror has always been, and remains, in Afghanistan, not Iraq. He framed the Iraq intervention as a total distraction from the real War on Terror, which resides in Afghanistan.
Yet again, this positively maddening assertion is being made by a leader of the American left. It is absolutely, unequivocally, a post-Iraq War invention. I plead with my liberal friends: If you don’t believe me, then remember what the Clinton administration stated repeatedly:
Throughout the latter 1990s, President Clinton’s State Department, headed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, listed Iraq among the leading sponsors of terrorism. It did so officially in its Patterns of Global Terrorism report, which is the formal, annual assessment on global terrorism mandated by Congress beginning in 1979 with the passing of the Export Administration Act. The final such report by the Clinton administration, in 2000, highlighted the seven leading terrorist governments: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan. Afghanistan was not even on the list. These were the same seven nations identified in previous years, with Iraq and Iran singled out as the worst offenders (1999 index, 1999 overview). In fact, the 2000 report devoted more words (and terrorist crimes) to Iraq than any other nation.
From providing safe-haven to Abu Nidal to attacking U.N. personnel, I will not review the details of the 2000 report here. Anyone interested can click the links. But I warn liberals: you will not like what you see, because it will force you to reevaluate some sacred cows produced for convenience in the era of hating George W. Bush, including those that reared their heads in Obama’s speech on Tuesday.
The fact is that the fight against global Islamic terror is exactly that—global. It must occur on many fronts. To judge that the fight was never in Iraq but always in Afghanistan is amazingly simplistic and obviously inaccurate, and would never be made by supposedly sophisticated people if not for their seething hatred of George W. Bush. That hatred forces them into back-flips and contradictions in the ugly, purely emotional process of opposing everything he does. Bush’s identification of Iraq as a prime terror threat—pursued only after the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan—is 100 percent consistent with what the Clinton administration stated throughout its eight years.
Surely, liberals know this. If they do not—and if Barack Obama, their standard-bearer, does not—then this speaks very poorly, and quite frighteningly, of their ability to run American foreign policy over the next four years. The explanation for their thinking is either ignorance or a blinding hatred of George W. Bush that obliterates their ability to assess reality and the world.
Whatever the answer, Obama’s speech on Tuesday was not a good moment for anyone who hopes this man can lead America in this historic battle facing the world.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His recent books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007).