Not so long ago, Barack Obama was the darling of the anti-war
Left. On a host of national security issues – Iraq, Iran, government
surveillance of terrorists – Obama preached a friendly gospel and was
worshipped in turn as a political “messiah.” The liberal grassroots, sensing a
kindred spirit in the Illinois Senator, rewarded him with the Democratic
nomination. Nothing could come between Obama and his base.
Now something has. In a word: reality. As he courts the
national electorate, Obama can ill-afford to sing from the same activist hymnal
that propelled him, ever so narrowly, past Hillary Clinton. So it is that to
the hair-pulling dismay of his supporters, Obama is leaving the Left – for the
moment, at least.
It started with Iraq. During the primaries, Obama ran as the
candidate of immediate withdrawal. Cheering the anti-war faithful, he pledged to
remove all troops within 16 months – facts on the ground be damned. That
promise, indeed, endures on his campaign website, which states that “Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from
Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month and have all of our
combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.”
Or will he? On the campaign trail,
Obama is beating a hasty retreat from retreat. No longer wedded to precipitous
withdrawal, he now avers that he will “refine” his position after meeting with military commanders in
Iraq later this month. Obama maintains that his position remains unchanged, but
the claim is untenable. Where previously he would have imposed artificial timelines,
risking chaos and worse with a too-hasty exit, he now appears to accept that
the responsible position is to defer to military strategists.
This alone has given his devotees
fits. But Obama has gone further. Belatedly but still unpalatably for his
former fans, he has upbraided
the fons et origo of the netroots, MoveOn.org, for its smearing last fall of Gen. David
Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” By mainstream standards, the criticism was of
little consequence. But among a political cohort famously intolerant of dissent
– witness their passionate hatred of Sen. Joseph Lieberman – it constituted a
betrayal in its own right.
On Iran, too, Obama is a changed
man. Last fall, he made much of Hillary Clinton’s support for a nonbinding
resolution to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist
organization. Though he missed the vote, Obama did not hide his disdain
for Clinton’s position. As he lectured at the time: “I strongly differ with
Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was the only Democratic presidential candidate to
support this reckless amendment.”
But what was “reckless” then is all too reasonable now. Just
last month, Obama revealed that he favored
designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group after all. Likewise, Obama
has stopped emphasizing his pledge, much admired on the left side of the
blogosphere, to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions.
If Obama’s deviations were solely
rhetorical, the Left would have little cause to worry. As it happens, however,
the senator’s votes have undergone a similar shift. Most prominently, Obama has
reversed course on electronic wiretapping. Back when he was competing for the
netroots’ support, Obama promised to filibuster any bill that offered retroactive
immunity for telecom companies cooperating with the U.S. government. But last
week he voted in favor of just such a bill.
Expectedly, the senator’s spurned
in arms. Not only have establishment media like the
Times bemoaned the “new and not improved” Obama, but his younger
admirers have turned against him. On left-wing hubs like the Daily Kos, Obama
has been savaged for his turnaround on the wiretapping bill. Ariana Huffington,
writing on her vanity website the Huffington
Post, bitterly condemned his “realstupidpolitik.” So badly has the faith in
Obama been shaken that commenter on Talking
Points Memo wondered
dejectedly if “perhaps we should get off our high
horses and stop believing in Obama as a messiah.”
Reassuring as this political
divorce is, there is less to Obama’s repositioning than meets the eye. On Iraq,
Obama’s position is nakedly opportunistic, capitalizing as it does on the
universally acknowledged success of the surge strategy that he opposed. There
is every reason to think that, should conditions in Iraq deteriorate, Obama
would reverse himself again.
Obama can at least claim
consistency for his position on Iran. That is not entirely to his credit,
however. His newly hawkish rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama is still offering
the same policy – “direct, aggressive, and sustained diplomacy” – that has manifestly
failed to deter Tehran in recent years.
With respect to wiretapping, Obama
voted wisely last week. But it is not insignificant that he also supported
three amendments that would have vitiated the bill, among them a provision to
strip communications companies of immunity – a measure that would make it much
more difficult for private companies to cooperate with the government on
counterterrorism efforts. It inspires no confidence in his judgment that Obama
fails to understand this elemental point.
Still, this is a marked
improvement from the Obama of the primaries. The country’s most liberal senator last year is more reluctant to play the part. To talk
chalk this up to political expediency is to miss the point. Whatever his
beliefs, Obama has shown himself to be a far shrewder politician than many
imagined. Just as notable, his strategic feints have underscored that the antiwar
Left’s positions on crucial national security matters are out of synch with the
mainstream. If, as the netroots insist, the country has turned resolutely
leftward on these issues, why then is Obama so eager to break ranks with them?
Ultimately, Obama’s political evolution
is not, to crib a phrase, the kind of change one can believe in. But it is a
welcome change all the same.