Obama in Never-Before-Aired ‘Nightline’ Interview From 2004: Praises John Kerry’s Experience, Disses ‘Cut and Run’ Proposals From Iraq

By Natalie Gewargis

Aug 27, 2008 7:50pm

It was a very different time, the Iraq war was just over a year old, and then-State Sen. Barack Obama was in a very different place.

In 2004, former "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel interviewed the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

It never aired, though it will air tonight.

Some very interesting stuff.

Koppel asked Obama about comments he’d made to the Chicago Tribune about the convention focusing on the war.

"There were people who supported the war and people who opposed the war inside that convention hall," Obama said. "But what people are unified about is that, when we make a decision to go to war, that it should not be ideologically driven, that it should be driven by a set of facts and common sense with regards to how we mobilize our country and our national interest.

"And I think that there is a strong feeling that, even among those that supported George Bush’s decision initially to go in, that there was some fudging of the numbers and shading of the truth, and that, as a consequence of our inability to create a strong alliance around our actions, that we are now stuck in a quagmire that is going to cost us not only billions of dollars, but thousands of lives, and will require a much longer-term commitment than the American voters had intended when they rallied behind the president."

Asked Koppel: "Well, how does electing John Kerry resolve that dilemma for America?"

Obama said, "If you look at what has happened over the last several months, I think there is a convergence. Basically, the Bush administration has moved in the direction of its critics in trying to internationalize the reconstruction process. So, I am not sure that, on paper, the differences between the Bush administration and a Kerry administration would be significant."

Obama continued, "All of us assume that when we make that commitment, that we have to finish the job, we owe it not only to the troops who sacrificed their lives, but also the Iraqi people. The question is, who can execute. Who has the credibility to gather its allies together and to make sure that they are willing to expand their political capital, domestically, to invest into Iraq, to send their own troops into Iraq, to pressure countries, like Iran, to deal with issues of proliferation?

"And I think that there is a strong impression that the Bush administration has squandered its will on the international stage, and that John Kerry would come in with a broader vision and the possibility of bringing people onboard in a way that is necessary for our long-term success," Obama said.

Koppel said, "Presidents often talk about the importance of their personal relations with other leaders, but essentially that is a lot of hooey. You know, nations do things because of national interest."

"Absolutely," agreed Obama.

"And so," Koppel continued, "whether John Kerry is in the White House or George Bush is in the White House, that is not going to cause the French, or the Germans, or the Russians, or others who do not see it in their national interest to be engaged in Iraq right now, to suddenly say, ‘Well, John, I like you a lot better than I liked George!’"

Obama said, "I do not think that it is a function of like or dislike. I think that what our allies look at is a consistent disdain for world opinion that culminated in Iraq, but that did not start in Iraq. Unilateral rejection of the Kyoto protocol, or the unilateral rejection of the International Criminal Court. Unilateral rejection of the land mines treaty.

"All of this culminating in Iraq, leading up to Iraq, but a pattern established that ‘the United States is not interested in our national interest, that they do not want to sit down at our table and how to figure out how this is good for us as well as the United States, they’re willing to make their own decisions,’" Obama said. "It is that pattern on the part of the Bush administration that I think has made it so difficult for us to craft the kind of strategies that we need in hot areas like the Middle East."

Koppel asked, "But do you think that most the delegates on the floor really understand that President Kerry is not going to pursue a policy in Iraq that is essentially different from the one that George Bush is pursuing?"

"Oh, I think that they understand that," Obama said. "I think that they recognize that we cannot afford to simply cut and run in Iraq, and that we are in a difficult situation right now. And I think that what they are hoping for is somebody who is going to bring a thoughtfulness and a base of experience to decision-making in the White House, which John Kerry possesses, and I think that George Bush does not."

Koppel asked Obama, "Why can we not cut and run? When you freeze it that way, you determine the outcome. Why is it inappropriate to say, ‘We’ll stay for another six months so that Iraq can take over their own affairs and their own defence and their own security, but in six months, we are pulling our troops out of there.’"

"Well, Ted, you have been there and I have not," said Obama. "I do not know whether or not we can accomplish that in six months. If we can, then I think John Kerry will bring our troops home. …

"My assumption would be that if we could actually stabilize Iraq in such a way that you do not have warfare between the Sunnis the Shii’as and the Kurds, some semblance of law and order in that country, then I think that there is no doubt that the Kerry administration is going to be interested in bringing back the reservists and the National Guardsmen who are currently there, but –"

"If all of those things were true, Mr. Obama," Koppel interrupted, "I think it is also true that the Bush administration would bring the troops back."

"Absolutely," Obama said.

"Again, no difference between the two," Koppel said.

"Well, but as I said before, part of what we are struggling with here, part of what is at stake, is not simply the decision-making in Iraq," Obama said. "What is at stake is an overall approach to foreign policy that has been characterized in the Bush administration by unilateralism and a disdain for world opinion. That has concrete consequences over time. …

"We got a driver who drove the bus into the ditch; now we can argue about how that happened, but we’ve got to get the bus out of the ditch. That does not mean you don’t fire the driver. And the question is: who do we trust over the long term to direct our foreign policy in a way that meets international interests, makes us strong here at home, creates the kind of, or restores us to kind of respect that we’ve had in the past, abroad, and I think that the estimation of those in the convention is that they trust John Kerry to make those decisions better than George Bush will make those decisions."

The interview will air on "Nightline" tonight. Four years late — but quite relevant, in its way.

- jpt

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