Yesterday, I tried to get a handle on the principles animating the conservative and liberal views of the Ground Zero mosque. It sounded like Obama was bravely upholding the liberal position despite its current unpopularity last Friday. He seemed to affirm that American Muslims have the right, as a matter not only of law but of civic morality, to build a mosque near Ground Zero and that the rest of us have a corresponding duty not to burden the exercise of that right. Yet by the next day, Obama was once again parsing his words, reminding us that he’s not a politician ready to pay a political price for upholding a liberal principle.
Now both Glenn Greenwald and Peter Beinart are waxing indignant about Obama’s performance, but with an important difference. Greenwald is disappointed, but not disillusioned because he never had many illusions about Democratic politicians in general, and Obama in particular, to begin with. Still it’s hard to imagine a liberal writer subjecting Obama and other Democrats to a more unflattering comparison:
Beinart has a more diplomatic temperament and keener sense of personal betrayal. Obama’s equivocations about the Ground Zero mosque hit him especially hard because Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq war had persuaded him that the president's a politician of high principle and uncommon courage:“The defining line of George Bush's successful 2004 re-election campaign, at a time when a majority of the country had turned against his core policies, was this, from his R.N.C. acceptance speech, designed to draw an obvious contrast with his Democratic challenger: "Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand." With their muddled, fear-driven, and increasingly shameful reaction to this latest right-wing attack on a vulnerable minority, many Democrats have proven, once again, that the same cannot be said for them.”
Beinart’s disillusionment is a symptom of a gilded memory. Recall how Bill Clinton got into trouble during the 2008 presidential primary season when he called the idea that Obama’s record on the Iraq war was appreciably better than Hillary’s “the biggest fairy tale [he’d] ever seen.” These undisputed facts show that he had a point:“But the mosque fiasco hasn’t only exposed the pretensions of the GOP. It’s exposed the pretensions of the Democrats as well. In important ways, it has revealed that the Obama administration, too, is a false dawn. After all, what did Obama promise liberals when he ran against Hillary Clinton? He promised that if he won, Democrats would no longer consult polls to decide what they believed. That’s what made Obama’s 2002 Iraq War speech so significant: when Washington Democrats were ducking for cover, taking positions that they manifestly did not believe, he did what he thought was right. . . .
“[O]n the moral issues surrounding the “war on terror”—starting with Guantanamo Bay—[Obama] has been Clintonesque in the worst sense of the word. His initial statement in support of the mosque was laudable; his subsequent efforts to deny that that’s what he meant have been pathetic. Yes, the polling is bad; standing up for a religious minority being made to feel like a pariah in its own land might cost Obama a few approval points. So what. Core convictions are worth losing approval points over. At least that’s what Obama believed in 2002.”
First, Obama was a state senator when he made his speech against the Iraq war, not privy to the classified intelligence that overstated the threat Saddam presented. He was the first to admit that he didn’t know how he would have voted on the war had he been standing in Hillary Clinton’s shoes.
Second, it took less political courage for Obama to oppose the war than his supporters generally suppose. Given her presidential ambitions, when Hillary Clinton voted for the Senate resolution authorizing the war in October 2002 she was undoubtedly mindful of national majorities supporting the war. Obama opposed the war when he was positioning himself for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Illinois, expecting that the base of his support in a low turnout, multi-candidate state primary would be anti-war African-Americans and Hyde Park liberals. There’d be plenty of time to recalibrate his position after he got the nomination. So Obama was arguably bowing to political pressure as much by opposing the war as Clinton was by supporting it.
Third, when Obama started contesting the general election before a statewide electorate among which the war was still reasonably popular, he’d changed his tune dramatically. He insisted that we had an “absolute obligation” to see the war through to success because the "failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster" that would “dishonor the 900-plus men and women who have already died,” “betray . . . the promise that we made to the Iraqi people” and “be hugely destabilizing from a national security perspective." If that sounds a lot like what George W. Bush was saying at the time you can take Obama’s word for it. He told the Chicago Tribune during the summer of 2004 that “[t]here’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.”
Fourth, later in his senatorial campaign, Obama did Bush one better by anticipating, and supporting, the idea of a troop surge before it was even a gleam in the president’s eye. Obama said in September 2004 that he’d “be willing to send more soldiers to Iraq if it is part of a strategy that the President and military leaders believe will stabilize the country and eventually allow America to withdraw.”
Finally, after his election to the Senate, Obama’s opposition to the war’s continued prosecution evolved in lockstep with that of most of his Democratic congressional colleagues, including Hillary Clinton. His first position after the 2006 election was that it would be irresponsible to oppose the war through denials of, or restrictions on, war funding. He joined all other Democratic Senators (except the “independent Democrat” Joe Lieberman) in opposing the troop surge that Bush ordered in January 2007 as a foolhardy escalation. By May 2007, he was opposing war funding appropriations because they did not specify a timeline for withdrawal. Eighty-four of the 85 votes implicating the war that Obama cast in the Senate were identical to Hillary’s—the sole exception being a vote on which Obama supported, and Hillary opposed, the president’s position on the promotion of a general. By the time Obama started running for president, like Clinton, he’d pledged to withdraw combat troops expeditiously. If this was profile in courage and sound judgment, it was one that Obama shared with Hillary and every other Democratic presidential candidate to the right of Dennis Kucinich.
His evolution over the Iraq war doesn't show that Obama is an especially unprincipled liberal politician. But it does expose the idea that he was ever a politician of notably high principle as a fairy tale that liberals got in the habit of telling themselves when they were abandoning Hillary Clinton as a standard bearer. Although I disagree with Glenn Greenwald pretty regularly on matters of substance, I can’t help thinking that liberalism would be better off if more liberals shared his impatience with wishful thinking.