Just as it slowly built up its case for the Iraq War, the Bush Administration is drumming the war beat again – this time against Iran. But in the five years since his courageous opposition to the Iraq resolution, Barack Obama has learned the subtle art of triangulation.
Eager to highlight substantial differences with Hillary Clinton to bolster his presidential campaign, Obama has seized on her September 26th vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that labels the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – the largest branch of the Iranian army – a terrorist group.
And with good reason, as the amendment is a disgrace. That Joe Lieberman co-authored it should be enough to make any Democrat stay away. The manner in which President Bush went about attacking Iraq in 2002 should have taught Clinton not to give the administration a blank check again; that she did suggests she might be as hawkish as her critics have charged. And while Bush might not be in a position to order a full-scale invasion, he could certainly order enough strikes to drag the Middle East into further chaos.
In a op-ed he wrote last week in the New Hampshire Union Leader, Obama blasted Clinton for having once again authorized a war. With uncharacteristically strong rhetoric, Obama wrote, “As we learned with the original authorization of the Iraq war – when you give this President a blank check, you can’t be surprised when he cashes it. I strongly differ with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was the only Democratic presidential candidate to support this reckless amendment.”
Yet Obama pretending that his policy is significantly different from Clinton’s is a shameful attempt at toning down his own hawkish position. If Obama thought that the amendment put the United States on the path to war, why was he not in the Senate to speak out against it, and why was he one of only two senators to miss the vote? His campaign argued that the vote was scheduled at the last minute, but the controversy had been raging on for days without Obama intervening. And that very night at the Democratic debate organized at Dartmouth University, Obama stayed away from the issue even as other candidates attacked Clinton for her vote and Obama for his absence.
Obama’s credibility took another hit when people noticed that he had co-sponsored the “Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007” last April. Just like Kyl-Lieberman, this bill called for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be designated as “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Obama’s campaign responded that he does not object to labeling the Guard a terrorist group but only to finding Iran involved in the Iraq War.
The Union Leader op-ed reflects this carefully crafted position. Obama denounces the “unnecessary saber-rattling about checking Iranian influence with our military presence in Iraq” and that the bill “goes out of its way to draw connections between distinct threats.” But he also takes care to acknowledge that “we do need to tighten sanctions on the Iranian regime, particularly on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which sponsors terrorism far beyond Iran’s borders.”
But many opposed to the Kyl-Lieberman amendment pinpointed the labeling of the Revolutionary Guard as the bill’s true blank check. In vowing that she would not bring the bill to a House vote, Nancy Pelosi did not hesitate to say that, “This has never happened before that a Congress should determine one piece of someone’s military is [a threat].” Indeed, how can those who supported such language now protest if Bush attacks Iran, a country they themselves are calling a terrorist threat? For Obama to portray himself as a staunch opponent of the amendment when he agrees with its main provision is deeply hypocritical.
Put succinctly, Obama’s position is that Iran engages in terrorist activities… just not in Iraq. But was not Saddam Hussein also accused of “sponsoring terrorism far beyond Iraq’s borders” in an explicit linkage with Al-Qaeda? Obama’s rhetoric on Iran dangerously parallels the connections that were drawn five years ago. His argument that tying Iran with Iraqi insurgents gives the administration a war rationale whereas linking it to non-Iraqi terrorists does not is an arbitrary fault line: Bush would have little problem arguing the need for strikes on the basis of the larger War on Terror. He has done so before, and Democrats conceding that the Revolutionary Guard is a terrorist group will allow him to do it again.
Both Democratic frontrunners are defying conventional wisdom by becoming increasingly hawkish as the primary battle unfolds, leaving many progressives unsure of where to turn. As Mike Gravel put it at the Dartmouth debate: “I am ashamed of you, Hillary, for voting for [the amendment]… And Obama was not even there to vote.”
Daniel Nichanian is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.