Judging from his comments over the past two weeks, very little frustrates Barack Obama as much as criticism of the difficult decisions he is facing as president on matters of war and peace. So he’s lashing out.
At his press conference on March 6, the president blasted his would-be successors for politicizing the threat from Iran and the U.S. alliance with Israel. He criticized “the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war” and dismissed their concerns as “bluster” and “big talk.” The president said: “This is not a game. There’s nothing casual about it.”
In his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, Obama complained that “partisan politics” in this “political season” have led to a distorted understanding of his views on Israel and Iran.
In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Obama said Republican critiques are part of “the usual politics” in an election year and condescendingly added, “These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.”
Tough accusations. Senator John McCain thinks they cross a line. “I have never seen a president deal in personal character attacks the way that this president does,” he told me last week. “That can only mean that he’s insecure about his position. He does not have the experience or knowledge on these issues so he resorts to these personal comments or attacks.”
To swallow his claim that Republicans are politicizing the debate on Iran and Israel, the president needs voters, and, more important, reporters, to make a crucial assumption about his own behavior: that Barack Obama would never engage in such irresponsible electioneering.
Why would the president claim his critics are just playing politics? Is it partisan to be concerned about the prospect of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism obtaining nuclear weapons? To take seriously Iran’s supreme leader when he calls Israel a “cancer” that needs to be eliminated?
No. There’s a simple reason Obama sees politics in everything his rivals say: projection. Barack Obama owes his rise to partisan, antiwar rhetoric. It started early, with the speech Obama gave against the Iraq war in 2002, as he began his run for the Senate. Bettylu Saltzman, a Chicago socialite who was enthralled with Obama, was organizing an antiwar rally in Federal Plaza and she wanted Obama to speak. Obama opposed the war but he was concerned about the political implications of appearing at the event. Dan Shomon, at the time his top adviser, told Obama that he needed to keep Saltzman happy to ensure her continued support for his candidacy. Saltzman was important not only because she was a well-heeled and well-connected Chicago liberal; she was also helping Obama convince David Axelrod that he should take a chance on a relatively unknown state senator.
David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, perhaps the best account of Obama’s rise, wrote that Obama understood “it would not be wise to disappoint Saltzman if he wanted her to continue lobbying Axelrod on his behalf.” So he went ahead with the speech. Mendell argues that the significance of this decision to address the rally cannot be overstated. “It is particularly important when considering this: Obama made the decision to protest the impending war in part as a political calculation that he hoped would benefit him among Democrats.”
Whatever doubts Obama had about the wisdom of his appearance, they did little to temper his harsh critique of his predecessor as commander in chief, George W. Bush, whose goal in those days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil was to prevent another one, with perhaps more devastating consequences. “What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income—to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression,” Obama exclaimed. He told the protesters he opposed “a dumb war, a rash war—a war based not on reason but passion, not on principle but on politics.”
Obama wasn’t making these arguments because he had access to intelligence unavailable to anyone else. Indeed, the day before these remarks Bush received the National Intelligence Estimate that would later be at the center of the arguments about the Iraq war but which declared, in language that George Tenet would famously call a “slam dunk,” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. (Indeed, Obama’s political role model, Edward Kennedy, warned against invading Iraq because he feared Saddam Hussein would use his WMDs.)
This was a case Obama would make consistently through his election in 2008. On September 12, 2007, one day after Obama told General David Petraeus that the surge in Iraq was destined to fail, he returned to the campaign trail and touted his consistency: “I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003. I opposed it in 2004. I opposed it in 2005. I opposed it in 2006.”
Three weeks later, he gave a speech in Chicago marking the anniversary of his 2002 speech opposing the war. As politicians often do, he recast the narrative of the events leading up to that speech, suggesting that his advisers had urged him to keep quiet, but that in a triumph of courage over expediency, he had overruled them. (Later in the speech, Obama claimed: “Some seek to rewrite history.” The jibe was directed at his opponents, but accurately described what he was doing at the podium.)
Those claiming the surge was working, he said, were “divorced from reality”—an accusation that included Petraeus, now Obama’s CIA director. Obama congratulated himself for predicting that the war would be more difficult than its architects had suggested and insisted, once again, that those who disagreed with him, Republicans and Democrats alike, were motivated by politics. “The conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don’t make practical sense,” he averred. “We were counseled by some of the most experienced voices in Washington that the only way for Democrats to look tough was to talk, act, and vote like a Republican.”
The restraint he’s now seeking from his Republican rivals was nowhere in evidence as he rode his opposition to the Iraq war from the Illinois State Senate to the White House.
The Atlantic’s Goldberg, whose interview with Obama covered the weightiest of weighty subjects—a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the possible annihilation of Israel, among other topics—later noted that the president was at his most passionate when he spoke about . . . domestic politics. “One of the most interesting things in this interview I did with the president last week, he got most exercised when talking about his record on Israel and the way that Republicans, especially Republican candidates for president, are talking about it.”
Is it any wonder?