In determining which of the two leading Democratic candidates would make the most competent and credible commander-in-chief, it is revealing to compare the public statements of U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama during October 2002, when Congress voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Former President Bill Clinton, at a recent rally on behalf of his wife, insisted that Senator Clinton and Senator Obama had had virtually identical records on the Iraq war and that Obama's claim that he "had the judgment to oppose this war from the beginning" was "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
The record from that fateful month, however, shows that there were indeed major differences between the two presidential contenders, with Senator Clinton supporting the Bush administration's push for war and its exaggerated claims about Iraq's alleged military prowess while Obama was opposing a U.S. invasion of that oil-rich country and openly challenging the administration's exaggerated claims of an Iraqi threat.
Though under no obligation as a state senator to make any public statements on foreign policy, Obama took the initiative to speak out against the prospects of war at an anti-war rally in Chicago.
Obama believed that Iraq may have been able to develop chemical and biological weapons and he certainly carried no pretense about the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime, referring to the late Iraqi dictator as "brutal" and "ruthless" and acknowledging that "The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him." At the same time, he recognized that "Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors." Furthermore, Obama noted how he recognized "that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained."
That same month in Washington, however, Senator Clinton was insisting incorrectly that Iraq was "trying to develop nuclear weapons" and that Iraq's possession of biological and chemical weapons was "not in doubt" and was "undisputed."
Senator Clinton then went on record insisting that the risk that Saddam Hussein would "employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States" was enough to "justify action by the United States to defend itself," specifically by authorizing President Bush to launch an invasion of Iraq at the time and circumstances of his choosing.
Even though Obama was right in emphasizing that war was unnecessary and Clinton was wrong, this hasn't stopped the New York senator from accusing him to this day of being soft of Saddam Hussein. Despite Obama having called at that time for continued containment by the international community and the return of UN inspectors, Clinton charged in a nationally-televised interview on Meet the Press this January 14 that "His judgment was that, at the time in 2002, we didn't need to make any efforts" to deal with that threat.
In other words, Clinton was trying to make the case that the ongoing international strategy at containment supported by Obama during this period - enforcing sanctions, maintaining an international force as a military deterrent, and returning UN inspectors to Iraq - was the same as "not making any efforts," essentially using the Bush administration argument that refusing to support an invasion of Iraq equaled doing nothing.
Whether Iraq constituted a threat to U.S. national security was not the only thing that separated Clinton and Obama back in October 2002. In the months leading up to the Senate vote, former State Department and intelligence officials, European and Middle Eastern allies, scholars specializing in the region, and others argued that a U.S. invasion would likely result in a bloody insurgency, a rise in Islamist extremism and terrorism, increased sectarian and ethnic conflict, and related problems.
Despite this, Senator Clinton insisted that her voting to authorize the invasion was "in the best interests of our nation."
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Obama was observing how "even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." He also recognized that "an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda."
In summary, on the most critical political question of the decade, a freshman state senator from Illinois was able to figure out what an experienced member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee could not - that Saddam Hussein was no longer a threat and that an invasion of Iraq would harm America's national security interests. Over the next few weeks, Democratic voters will have the opportunity to decide whether which of these two leading candidates has the best judgment to lead this country during this next critical period.