Barack Obama’s speech at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington this past Wednesday provides insight into the cynicism with which he has treated substantive, indeed deadly serious, issues of policy before the American electorate in the presidential election. Casting a backward light on his primary-season presentation of his candidacy, the AIPAC speech shows Obama to be an old-fashioned politician of the kind that the public esteems about as much as it esteems journalists and used-car salesmen. Although the McCain campaign took the opportunity to explore the nature of Obama’s calculations, few have followed.
Recall that in his speech at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington on Wednesday, Obama called for “boycotting firms associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whose Quds force has rightly been labeled a terrorist organization.” Before the speech, Obama had not so far as I am aware advertised this position in any speech or debate. The timing of the AIPAC speech was of course notable. Obama had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination on the evening before and was now moving into the general election.
Whether or not the Iranian Revolutionary Guard should be designated a terrorist entity had first surfaced as an issue in the run-up to the primaries in the Kyl-Lileberman amendment. Senator Obama did not appear in the Senate to vote on the amendment when it came before the Senate on September 26. The amendment had only one substantive component. In a non-binding resolution, the heart of the amendment called on the government to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist entity. Designation of a group as a terrorist entity entails specified consequences including financial and economic sanctions enforced by the United States Treasury.
The authors of the amendment had sought to achieve a bipartisan consensus on the important issue posed by the amendment. In order to allay concerns expressed by prominent Democrats such as Harry Reid and Dick Durbin, the authors of the bill struck language supporting the “prudent and and calculated use of all instruments of United States national power in Iraq, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military instruments” against Iran and its proxies. In the linked version of the amendment, one can see the language deleted to allay Democratic concerns.
The nutroots exploded in hysteria over the proposed amendment, characterizing it as tantamount to granting the Bush administration power to wage war on Iran. For pitch-perfect examples, see the Huffinton Post columns by Yale English Professor David Bromwich here and here.
Barack Obama expressed no position on the amendment prior to the September 26 vote on it. (Only Obama and John McCain missed the vote, though McCain was a co-sponsor of the amendment and his position on it was well known.) At the time of the vote, Hillary Clinton still fancied herself the Democratic frontrunner positioning herself for the general election. She voted in favor of the amendment, together with prominent Democratic colleagues including Reid and Durbin. The amendment passed in the Senate 76-22.
Only after Clinton had voted in favor of the amendment and the amendment had passed did Obama announce his opposition to it. On the day of the vote on the amendment, Obama issued a statement announcing that he would have voted against it. The Politico’s Ben Smith commented: “He does have a position!”
Obama subsequently advanced three explanations for his opposition to the amendment. The McCain campaign has usefully compiled them here. These explanations are difficult to reconcile with the text or purport of the amendment.
Obama hammered Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the amendment. At a Democratic candidates’ debate in December before the Iowa caucus, for example, Obama likened her vote in favor of the amendment to her vote in favor of authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. The New York Daily News reported:
Monday’s revelation that the Iranian nuke threat was hugely overblown gave Clinton’s rivals new zeal to criticize her vote to brand Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Obama likened it to her 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war. “This saber-rattling was a repetition of Iraq,” he said.
Obama’s criticism of Clinton on this score was a powerful tool against her in the Democratic caucuses and primaries. On Wednesday before AIPAC, however, the time had come for Obama to support the designation of the IRG as a terrorist organization, eight months after the Senate vote on the subject and after the conclusion of the primary season the evening before.
What does Barack Obama really think? Was his opposition to Kyl-Lieberman an elaborate pose exploiting the fears of left-wing Democrats against Clinton on the flimsiest of pretexts? Did his speech to AIPAC expressing support for the formal designation of the IRG as a terrorist entity express his real view? In retrospect, one can see the deliberation and calculation that Obama has devoted to the issue without being able to deduce his real view, if he has one.
JOHN adds: It’s probably futile to read the tea leaves to try to figure out what Obama *really* thinks. What he really thinks is that he’d like to be President. It’s hard to find evidence that he has thought much about the issues, other than how they can help him achieve that goal.
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