A War Opponent’s Long and Winding Road to Ending a War

It was Oct. 2, 2002, when a young state senator named Barack Obama spoke at an anti-war rally, saying, “I don’t oppose all wars. … What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”

It was a speech that enabled Obama – five years later as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate – to distinguish himself as wiser and more principled than his Democratic primary competitors, one of whom is now his secretary of state, and another his vice president.

“The hard truth is that the war in Iraq is not about a catalog of many mistakes – it is about one big mistake,” then-Sen. Obama said on Oct. 2, 2007 on the fifth anniversary of his previous speech. “The war in Iraq should never have been fought.”

About that 2002 address – which he and his campaign wielded like a sword against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards – Obama then recalled, “Some friends of mine advised me to keep quiet. Going to war in Iraq, they pointed out, was popular. All the other major candidates were supporting the war at the time. If the war goes well, they said, you’ll have thrown your political career away.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush announced that he would support a plan proposed by Gen. David Petraeus for a surge of approximately 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq. Then-Sen. Obama strongly opposed it, telling MSNBC on Jan. 10, 2007, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

By November 2007, Sen. Obama was saying that “not only have we not seen improvements,” because of the surge, “but we’re actually worsening, potentially, a situation there.”

Meanwhile, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all began trying to out-do each other on opposition to the war in Iraq.

By May 2007, what had been considered radical just a few months prior on Capitol Hill had become mainstream Democratic thought. A majority of Senate Democrats voted to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from within four months, with all troops gone by March 2008.

On May 25, 2007, 80 senators voted to fund U.S. troops in Iraq. Obama and Clinton were two of only 14 who voted no. Their votes contradicted comments they had made earlier in the year.

“What you don’t want to do is to play chicken … with the president and create a situation in which, potentially, you don’t have body armor, you don’t have reinforced Humvees, you don’t have night vision goggles,” then-Sen. Obama had said.

On the campaign trail, Sen. Obama made his pledge to end the war stark.

“When I promise that we are going to bring this war in Iraq to a close in 2009, I want the American people to understand that I opposed this war in 2002, 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’07, so you can have confidence that I will be serious about ending this war,” he told the North Carolina Democratic Party 2008 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on May 2008.

Probed further, he would say that ending the war was 16-month project.

“In order to end this war responsibly, I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq,” he said. “We can responsibly remove one to two combat brigades each month. If we start with the number of brigades we have in Iraq today, we can remove all of them 16 months.”

By the fall of 2008, the surge – combined with a number of other factors, including the Sunni uprising – had worked.

In September 2008, Obama told Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, “I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated. … It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to make Obama’s opposition to the surge a campaign issue, to obviously limited effect.

Before Sen. Obama could take office, the Bush administration signed an agreement with the Iraqi government drawing the U.S. combat presence in Iraq to a close by the end of 2011. Ultimately, it is the Bush agreement that the president today announced he would honor.

In February 2009, the new President Obama announced that his 16-month timetable would become a 19-month timetable. But, he announced, “by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

He had decided on a 19-month timeline instead of 16 after commanders on the ground requested that a sizable force remain for the Iraqi elections in December 2009.

One other awkward moment: in interviews with ABC News, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen credited President Bush’s surge with helping to pave the way for that day’s announcement.

“It clearly has put us in a very different place in terms of where Iraq is,” Gates said to me then.

As the clock ticked down to the end of 2011, the Iraqi government and the Obama administration negotiated about whether any U.S. troops would remain. The Iraqis wanted up to 5,000 U.S. troops to stay behind as trainers, but they refused to grant them immunity from prosecution. Talks broke down.

“A few hours ago I spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki,” the president said today. “I reaffirmed that the United States keeps its commitments. He spoke of the determination of the Iraqi people to forge their own future. We are in full agreement about how to move forward. So today, I can report that as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”

The president began his remarks, however, with a reminder of how central to his rise had been this promise to end the war.

“As a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end,” he said. “For the sake of our national security, and to strengthen American leadership around the world.”

-Jake Tapper