Commentary Magazine


What Obama Has Shown Us

In his Time column on Barack Obama, Joe Klein opens with this episode:

General David Petraeus deployed overwhelming force when he briefed Barack Obama and two other Senators in Baghdad last July. He knew Obama favored a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, and he wanted to make the strongest possible case against it. And so, after he had presented an array of maps and charts and PowerPoint slides describing the current situation on the ground in great detail, Petraeus closed with a vigorous plea for “maximum flexibility” going forward.

Obama had a choice at that moment. He could thank Petraeus for the briefing and promise to take his views “under advisement.” Or he could tell Petraeus what he really thought, a potentially contentious course of action – especially with a general not used to being confronted. Obama chose to speak his mind. “You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument,” he began. “Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security.” Obama talked about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the financial costs of the occupation of Iraq, the stress it was putting on the military

…. According to both Obama and Petraeus, the meeting – which lasted twice as long as the usual congressional briefing – ended agreeably. Petraeus said he understood that Obama’s perspective was, necessarily, going to be more strategic. Obama said that the timetable obviously would have to be flexible. But the Senator from Illinois had laid down his marker: if elected President, he would be in charge.

This exchange impresses Joe to no end. But what ought to stand out to Klein — if he were not once again enraptured by a charming Democratic candidate (as he was, for a time, with Bill “The Natural” Clinton) – is that Senator Obama spoke as if success in Iraq was separable from our overall national security; as if what General Petraeus has achieved in Iraq must be set against, rather than be seen as a huge advancement of, our national security interests. It highlights the fundamental flaw in Obama’s thinking on Iraq over the years; namely, his belief that losing in Iraq would somehow help us win in Afghanistan and in the larger war against jihadism.

This outlook is silly and enormously dangerous, and we can only hope that if Obama becomes commander-in-chief, he is able to “be flexible” and make the rather elementary connection between America’s success in Iraq and America’s success in the war against al Qaeda and jihadists all over the world.

Another episode Klein recounts from his interview with Obama has to do with his race speech in Philadelphia.

[Obama] said the first really big [gut decision] was how to react when incendiary videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s black-nationalist sermons surfaced last spring. “The decision to make it big as opposed to make it small,” Obama said of the landmark speech on race relations he delivered in Philadelphia. “My gut was telling me that this was a teachable moment and that if I tried to do the usual political damage control instead of talking to the American people like … they were adults and could understand the complexities of race, I would be not only doing damage to the campaign but missing an important opportunity for leadership.”

To this I have two reactions. The first is that the Philadelphia speech is the one in which Obama declared

I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

That statement came five weeks before Obama said this about Wright’s National Press Club comments, echoing what Wright had said many times before:

Whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. More importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we’re trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people.

So Wright went from being a person Obama could not disown– a man who was “part of [Obama]” and part of America–to a person he threw, with alacrity, under the campaign bus. A teachable moment, indeed.

My second reaction is that Senator Obama faced another teachable moment and opportunity for real leadership not all that long ago. It had to do with General Petraeus’s Congressional testimony in September 2007, when several of Obama’s Senate colleagues accused Petraeus of cooking the books. Even before the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic majority whip, warned Americans that “by carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing and thus the surge is working.” After the hearing, Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the general’s testimony was “just a façade to hide from view the continuing failure of the Bush administration’s strategy.” And according to Representative Rahm Emanuel, the general’s written report deserved to win “the Nobel Prize for creative statistics or the Pulitzer for fiction.” At that very teachable moment, however, when Senator Obama could have stood up for Petraeus and against his colleagues, Obama was silent.

And more. The day Petraeus testified,, the left-wing political-action committee, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times proposing, in giant type, a new name for General Petraeus: “General Betray Us.”

As the New York Post helpfully reminds us, many of Obama’s Senate colleagues expressed their anger over the ad at the time, when they voted to “strongly condemn personal attacks on the honor and integrity of” Petraeus. Senator Obama skipped the vote (“The focus of the United States Senate should be on ending this war, not on criticizing newspaper advertisements,” Obama said.)

But Obama eventually did get around to condemning the ad–ten months later, in a patriotism speech in Independence, Missouri, at a time when Petraeus was becoming a national hero.

This, too, was a teachable moment. It taught us something about the public character of Senator Obama, his operating style, and, perhaps, the political courage we can expect from him if he is elected President.

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