Five years after he first staked out his opposition to the looming Iraq war, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois yesterday invoked his judgment at the time to draw his sharpest distinction yet with leading Democratic presidential rivals, who sanctioned the invasion.
Obama made his remarks in Chicago, a few miles north of where he told an antiwar rally on Oct. 2, 2002, that a conflict in Iraq would be "dumb," requiring "a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Ten days after that speech, Congress - with the assent of Obama's opponents, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and then-Senator John Edwards of North Carolina - authorized President Bush to go to war.
"So there is a choice that has emerged in this campaign, one that the American people need to understand," Obama said yesterday at DePaul University, according to prepared remarks. "They should ask themselves: Who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War right, and who got it wrong?"
Obama has made his early opposition to the invasion a cornerstone of his primary campaign. When Clinton and others question whether he has the experience to be president, his retort, citing his rivals' 2002 war vote, is that experience means little without judgment.
"He's emphasizing the importance of good judgment as trumping experience," said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines. "That will attract some people . . . but is it going to be a major factor for him? I don't know that it is."
Rival campaigns and the Republican Party sought to throw water on Obama's speech, citing Obama's past votes and statements suggesting a more nuanced record on the war. Since joining the Senate in 2005, Obama has voted for at least four Iraq war spending measures, and last year he opposed a troop withdrawal proposal because it contained an "arbitrary deadline." Earlier this year, he voted against a bill to fund the war that lacked a timetable for withdrawal, a stance he says he will take again.
Obama's Iraq plan calls for an immediate, gradual redeployment of troops that would leave only a small number in the country to conduct counterterrorism operations and protect diplomats.
The campaign of another primary rival, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut - who also voted for the 2002 measure - drew attention to a
"What would I have done? I don't know," Obama said in the article. "What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."
Obama told CNN yesterday that those comments reflected an unwillingness to criticize Edwards and Senator John F. Kerry before they received the party's nomination.
Though he did not mention Clinton by name, Obama's repeated references to her yesterday were unmistakable, including a thinly veiled shot at her failure to read intelligence reports before the war that cast doubt on Bush's case.
The Clinton campaign dismissed his criticism.
"This is more of the same from Senator Obama," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said by e-mail. "We believe voters are focused on the future and on ending the war in Iraq. Increasingly, Americans think Senator Clinton is the candidate with the strength and experience to do so."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.