"Let me be clear: There is no military solution in Iraq, and there never was. The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one yearnow."
Sen. Barack Obama said that in a December 12, 2007, speech in Clinton, Iowa. At the time, he was still one of the pack of Democratic presidential candidates jostling and elbowing each other trying to get a knock-out edge over the others for the Democratic presidential nomination. That included first and foremost Hillary Clinton. He mercilessly pounded her then and afterward in speeches for backing the war and dutifully voting for war appropriations.
Nine months later, though, things had radically changed. Obama was no longer jostling with Hillary and the others for the top Democratic presidential nominee spot. He was now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and he said this: "I have always said I would listen to the commanders on the ground. I have always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed."
His very public record of his very public pledge to end the war NOW in stump speeches the year before he said that had changed, and his words and voting record on the war had changed, too. This has caused much grief, anguish and disappointment among fervent Obama backers. The war was the single biggest reason why many of them bought his spiel that as president, he would do what no other Democrat or Republican in the White House would do and that was to immediately end the war. That was more than enough for them to flock to his banner, lustily cheer him on, and furiously hector anyone who dared poke at his twists, turns, shifts and deep knee bends on Iraq.
But even the most cursory look at Obama's words, votes and campaign pirouettes on Iraq paint a far different picture of a candidate for which Iraq was never the clear-cut issue that many believed, or maybe wanted to believe. The Iraq flips started long before his Iowa pledge to get out now. It started even before he was in the Senate.
At a Democratic forum outside Chicago during his Senate campaign in 2003 and 2004, Obama lambasted Bush for waging the war. He flatly said that if he had been in the Senate he would not have voted for $87 billion more to bankroll the war. Or, as he put it in an earlier speech, "We have to say 'no' to George Bush." Once in the Senate, that 'no' quickly became 'yes.'
He promptly voted for four separate war appropriations that totaled more than $300 billion. A year before he pledged in Iowa to get the troops out now, he opposed a proposal by Sen. John F. Kerry to withdraw most combat troops from Iraq by July 2007. Obama didn't just cast a quiet vote against Kerry's troop removal proposal; he added the veiled chastisement that an "arbitrary deadline" could "compound" the Bush administration's mistake. A year later, he joined with Republicans and backed their resolution that the Senate would not cut off funding for troops in Iraq.
But money and votes aren't the only issue in which Obama sent a different message than the impassioned get-out-of-Iraq now speeches he still thundered before audiences. The other issue was when to withdraw. Obama backed up his "end the war now" rhetoric with another public demand that a firm timetable be set for withdrawal. In fact, a Democratic senator set a timetable with a specific withdrawal date. But that senator wasn't Obama. It was Kerry. His bill set the goal of withdrawing combat troops from Iraq by the end of March 2008. In contrast, Obama's withdrawal plan did not set firm deadlines and would keep troops in Iraq if the Bush administration and the Iraqi government met a laundry list of benchmarks.
March has long since passed, the troops are still there, and big-buck spending with the Senate's approval continues with no visible end in sight to it.
Meanwhile, Obama has added yet another wrinkle to his Iraq drama, and that's that he'll go to Iraq and listen to what the commanders on the ground and military brass there have to say about where we need to go with the war.
This sounds less like the hard-line verbal antiwar advocate named Obama, and more like a certain Republican presidential rival named McCain speaking. But then again, Obama has been consistent from the start on one thing on Iraq, and that's political expediency.
Incidentally, some things at least rhetorically don't change. An excerpt of Obama's Iraq antiwar speech (cleansed of his Iraq war removal-now call) is still on his official Web site barackobama.com/issues/iraq.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is "How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back" (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).