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 Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during October 2002, when Congress voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Former President Bill Clinton insisted recently that Clinton and 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 month, however, shows that there were indeed major differences between the two future presidential contenders, with 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 so urgent it required a march to war.
Though under no obligation as an Illinois state senator to make any public statements on foreign policy, Obama spoke out against the prospects of war at an anti-war rally in Chicago.
Obama 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 recognized "that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained."
That same month in Washington, Clinton was insisting incorrectly that Iraq had ties to al-Qaida, was "trying to develop nuclear weapons," and that Iraq's possession of biological and chemical weapons was "not in doubt."
Clinton then went on record insisting that the risk that Saddam 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.
Whether Iraq constituted such 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, representatives of European and Mideast allies, scholars specializing in the region, and other experts advised Clinton 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. So did thousands of ordinary citizens.
Despite this, 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 U.S. 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-Qaida."
On one of the most critical policy questions of a generation, a 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 was no longer a threat and that an invasion of Iraq would harm America's national security interests.
That kind of judgment shows itself today in their respective choices as senior foreign policy advisers, many of whom would likely take top policy-making positions if the candidate does become president. Obama has assembled a foreign policy team whose members overwhelmingly opposed the war, in contrast to Clinton's, whose members overwhelmingly supported it.
Wisconsin voters should keep this in mind in choosing which of these two Democratic candidates has the best judgment to lead this country during this next critical period.