It's troubling that all three presidential contenders are U.S. Senators with little or no executive experience, but one upside is that they all recently had the chance to question General David Petraeus about the Iraq war. Their questions and statements told us even more about the candidates than about the war.
John McCain may be dead wrong, but here's how he sees it (and I draw not only on more widely reported statements but also from an interview McCain gave me before the Ohio primary). Iraq was not like other countries; in 2003 it was a nation on probation. Saddam Hussein, perhaps mistakenly, was allowed to remain in power after a U.S. led coalition kicked him out of Kuwait in 1991, but only so long as Saddam agreed to respect a no-fly zone and to permit weapons inspections. By 1998, Saddam was not only shooting at our planes but also forcing weapons inspectors out of Iraq. That's why President Bill Clinton bombed Iraq and declared the need for regime change.
By 2002, virtually everyone in the world, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and possibly Saddam Hussein himself, believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction - if not nuclear weapons then certainly the sort of chemical weapons that Saddam had used to kill thousands of his own Kurdish people. Congressional investigations, the British Butler Commission (which, among other things, found there was reason to believe Saddam was seeking uranium from Niger) and perhaps most importantly, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 all attest to the widely held conviction - however mistaken it later proved to be - that Saddam Hussein, with his long history of defying U.N. dictates, represented a dire threat.
Resolution 1441, adopted in November 2002, gave Iraq 30 days to allow resumed weapons inspections - what the Security Council called "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations." Saddam Hussein never did. Instead, even facing a clear threat of invasion, he continued to play a cat and mouse game with inspectors, particularly regarding access to presidential palaces. At any time before the March 2003 invasion, Saddam could have defused the crisis. Instead it seems he believed that European officials he was bribing with Oil for Food money would protect him. After September 11, 2001, McCain believed the U.S. could not continue to overlook a mid-east dictator who invaded neighbors, pursued genocide, paid the families of suicide bombers $25,000 each, and seemed to many hell bent on acquiring more weapons of mass destruction, which he might use himself or share with terrorists.
So John McCain defends the invasion, but not the way the war initially was prosecuted. McCain believes the Clinton administration's evisceration of our military made it difficult to occupy Iraq, but he says that Donald Rumsfeld's war on the cheap, and failure to hold onto enemy enclaves like Fallujah, frittered away the initial victory. McCain was among the first to demand a troop surge and now feels vindicated, not only by the decreased casualties but by what he sees as political progress in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki's crackdown on fellow Shiites is seen by Senator McCain as a sign that Iraq's government will resist Iranian interference and seek a wider accord with Sunnis and Kurds.
Senator Barack Obama opposed the war from the first, dating back to a now famous speech he delivered in 2002 while still an Illinois state senator. Obama did not believe that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America. He did not believe that Saddam's Baathist Shiite state was ever closely allied with Al Qaeda Sunnis. And he feared that America and its allies might be plunging into an endless civil war.
Bill and Hillary Clinton have downplayed the political courage it took Obama to make that 2002 speech. Hillary Clinton also suggests that Obama is not really committed to a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops.
What I find most troubling about Barack Obama's stance on the war is the way he has repeatedly mischaracterized - some would say lied about - John McCain's willingness to remain in Iraq for a hundred years. Obama says McCain is committed to continue fighting that long. But McCain from the first made it clear that he wanted to remain in Iraq only after Americans stopped dying there, much as we have remained based as a stabilizing force in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Kuwait. Obama may believe it will take 100 years, if not longer, to achieve peace in Iraq, but that is a different issue.
Hillary Clinton's position on the war is more troubling still, because she has done an about face, based it would seem on political expediency and the changing nature of the presidential campaign.
Dating back to 1998, both Clintons supported regime change in Iraq, and after the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Hillary Clinton - as a senator from New York - was one of the most ardent and eloquent defenders of the Iraq War.
This played into her initial presidential strategy. Hillary Clinton originally planned to run for the White House as a centrist. That's what her husband had done in 1992, coming off his work with the Democratic Leadership Council. Hillary helped pull Bill to the left with her proposal to nationalize health care, a fiasco that was largely responsible for Democrats losing congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. That's when Bill Clinton hired public relations consultant Mark Penn, who - along with Dick Morris -- advised Clinton to tack once again to the right by signing Republican bills like welfare reform. The strategy came to be known as "triangulation" and - although Morris was forced to resign over a sex scandal - Penn remained close to the Clintons until he recently was forced to resign as Hillary's chief strategist, over the issue of free trade with Colombia.
What many critics believe forced Hillary to turn anti-war was the success Barack Obama had out-flanking her on the left. Now she is promising to pull out of Iraq even faster than he will. Hillary Clinton is not just joining John McCain in criticizing the initial prosecution of the war. She now claims she was hoodwinked by the Bush administration into supporting the war in the first place. Obama responds that Hillary Clinton not only voted to authorize the use of force (Clinton now says she only meant to encourage weapons inspections) but that she failed to study intelligence reports that, Obama believes, should have led her to oppose the invasion.
Voters will have to decide what they believe about each of these candidates' honesty, integrity, courage and judgment. There's no better place to begin than by examining their positions on the Iraq War.