War Critics Question Obama's Fervor

After sharply opposing the Iraq war during his 2004 Senate campaign, Barack Obama (D-Ill.) did not emerge as a key antiwar voice in the chamber. This year, his rhetoric has intensified again.
After sharply opposing the Iraq war during his 2004 Senate campaign, Barack Obama (D-Ill.) did not emerge as a key antiwar voice in the chamber. This year, his rhetoric has intensified again. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

For antiwar Illinois Democrats, the speech that made them fall in love with Barack Obama was not the one he gave in Boston in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention, but one two years earlier at a hastily organized rally in Chicago on the eve of the congressional vote to authorize the Iraq war.

"I don't oppose all wars," Obama, then a state senator, said on Oct. 2, 2002. ". . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."

This week, Obama quoted his own words in a speech on Iraq that chastised those who "took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves."

But some antiwar Democrats have raised questions about the depth of Obama's opposition, taking aim at one of the signature arguments for his candidacy -- that he is the only leading Democratic candidate who opposed the war from the beginning.

They say that while Obama did argue against the war as a Senate candidate, he tempered his rhetoric and his opposition once he arrived in the Capitol, rejecting timetables for withdrawal and backing war funding bills. He returned to a sharper position, they say, when he started running for president.

"So many politicians were afraid" to oppose the war, "so he gets credit for that," said Jim Ginsburg, a Chicago Democratic activist. He backed Obama when he ran for the Senate in 2004 but says Al Gore is his preferred candidate for president.

"Some of his actions and speeches once he got in the Senate did not match his rhetoric," Ginsburg, the son of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said of Obama. "He started making very mealy-mouthed comments and voted to authorize funding for the war. Once he started seeing how angry Democrats were, his rhetoric has turned to where it was in the 2004 campaign."

Obama's early opposition to the war, his advisers say, presents a telling contrast with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and fits neatly into the candidate's larger argument that experience in Washington is not important.

At the same time, its political benefit has been limited: Polls of Democratic voters show that those who favor immediate withdrawal from Iraq and who say the war is the top issue favor Clinton, as do Democrats overall. And some in the party's Net roots -- the bloggers and online activists who have grown in influence and were also early critics of the war -- argue that former senator John Edwards of North Carolina has been more outspoken in his opposition in the past two years.

"It's great [Obama] had good judgment," said Markos Moulitsas Z?niga, who runs the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, but he added: "There's no clarity of message." Moulitsas said that Obama should have firmly come out against any bill that offers funding for the war without a timetable for withdrawal, as Edwards has.

"Barack Obama was against the war from Day One and has consistently fought to end it in the quickest, most responsible way possible," responded Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Friends can disagree, but Obama has been one of the steadiest antiwar voices in Washington since he got there."

In a speech Wednesday, Obama offered his most detailed plan yet for getting troops out of Iraq, calling for the withdrawal of at least one of the 20 brigades (each made up of about 3,500 soldiers) in Iraq every month starting now, with all combat troops out by the end of next year. And even among the most antiwar audiences, Obama still has many supporters.

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