12/4/07 NPR Democratic Debate: On Misleading and On Enabling George W. Bush
I started reading the transcript of the debate and noticed this exchange early in the debate (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
CLINTON: Well, many of us believe that.
You know, earlier this year Senator Edwards told an audience in Israel that the nuclear threat from Iran was the greatest threat to our generation. Back in 2004, Senator Obama told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he would even consider surgical strikes by missiles to take out Iran's nuclear capacity.
So there was a very broadly based belief that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon.
I have discussed Sen. Edwards' and Sen. Obama's statements in an earlier post. Here's how Sen. Obama responded to Sen. Clinton's statement:
OBAMA: Well, Senator Clinton's mention of the Chicago Tribune article back in 2004 I think is a little bit misleading. Because what I was specifically asked about was, if Iran was developing nuclear weapons, how could we respond? And in those situations, what I said is, "We should keep options on the table."
But what I've been consistent about was that this saber-rattling was a repetition of Iraq, a war I opposed, and that we needed to oppose George Bush again. We can't keep on giving him the benefit of the doubt, knowing the ways in which they manipulate intelligence.
There are two problems with Sen. Obama's response. First, he claims to be perturbed about "giving [Bush] the benefit of the doubt" and wrongly portrays Sen. Clinton's vote for Kyl-Lieberman as somehow having to do with giving Bush "benefit of the doubt" (tell anti-war Senator Dick Durbin that). Let's set aside the fact that just like Sen. Clinton, Sen. Obama has supported the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and that Sen. Obama was a total no show for the Kyl-Lieberman vote which he considered to be as important to American history as the Iraq war resolution of 2002. What is problematic about Sen. Obama's position is that, according to his own definition, he could very well be considered guilty of "giving Bush the benefit of the doubt" on more than one occasion. First, on social security, where he was recently criticized for playing into Bush's hands, he said:
So the notion that somehow because George Bush was trying to drum up fear in order to execute [his] agenda means that Democrats shouldn't talk about it at all I think is a mistake. This is part of what I meant when I said we're constantly reacting to the other side instead of setting our own terms for the debate, but also making sure we are honest and straight forward about the issues that we're concerned about.
Back in September 2005, he refused to support a filibuster of the nomination of Far Right Supreme Court nominee John Roberts saying that would be "quixotic" and that it would have signaled that Democrats would not support any nominee of Bush. He then defended Democrats who voted for Roberts in a blog post at Daily Kos by arguing that their action was justifiable given that they, along with a majority of Americans, believed that Bush deserved to be given benefit of the doubt, despite everything that we knew about Bush back then (emphasis mine):
According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party. They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda. In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda. The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.
I think this perspective misreads the American people. From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. They don't think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don't think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs. They don't think America is an imperialist brute, but are angry that the case to invade Iraq was exaggerated, are worried that we have unnecessarily alienated existing and potential allies around the world, and are ashamed by events like those at Abu Ghraib which violate our ideals as a country.
It's this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings. A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don't think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession. Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee). While they hope Roberts doesn't swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.
A plausible argument can be made that too much is at stake here and now, in terms of privacy issues, civil rights, and civil liberties, to give John Roberts the benefit of the doubt. That certainly was the operating assumption of the advocacy groups involved in the nomination battle.
I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning. But short of mounting an all-out filibuster -- a quixotic fight I would not have supported; a fight I believe Democrats would have lost both in the Senate and in the court of public opinion; a fight that would have been difficult for Democratic senators defending seats in states like North Dakota and Nebraska that are essential for Democrats to hold if we hope to recapture the majority; and a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations -- blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.
In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense....
Sen. Obama's words above reflect exactly the kind of triangulation and calculation that he accuses Sen. Clinton of. He claimed that he did not want to give Roberts the benefit of the doubt but that other Democrats and most Americans felt Bush should be given benefit of the doubt, so it was justifiable that some Democrats voted for him and that he should not filibuster the nomination. Hence, he was supporting the notion that it was OK for Congress to give Bush the benefit of the doubt - that he did not deserve - on the most serious matters.
The other problem with Sen. Obama's response in the debate relates to his claim that Sen. Clinton was being misleading in describing his comments to the Chicago Tribune and that he was merely responding to a hypothetical about Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Here's the Chicago Tribune article. It's very clear from the article that Sen. Obama was not responding to some hypothetical - he was discussing what American strategy should be given that Iran had recently announced plans that suggested they were reviving an aspect of their nuclear program:
U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama suggested Friday that the United States one day might have to launch surgical missile strikes into Iran and Pakistan to keep extremists from getting control of nuclear bombs.
Obama, a Democratic state senator from the Hyde Park neighborhood, made the remarks during a meeting Friday with the Tribune editorial board. Obama's Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, was invited to attend the same session but declined.
Iran announced on Tuesday that it has begun converting tons of uranium into gas, a crucial step in making fuel for a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency has called for Iran to suspend all such activities.Obama said the United States must first address Iran's attempt to gain nuclear capabilities by going before the United Nations Security Council and lobbying the international community to apply more pressure on Iran to cease nuclear activities. That pressure should come in the form of economic sanctions, he said.
But if those measures fall short, the United States should not rule out military strikes to destroy nuclear production sites in Iran, Obama said.
"The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?" Obama asked.
Given the continuing war in Iraq, the United States is not in a position to invade Iran, but missile strikes might be a viable option, he said. Obama conceded that such strikes might further strain relations between the U.S. and the Arab world.
"In light of the fact that we're now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in," he said.
"On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. ... And I hope it doesn't get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I'd be surprised if Iran blinked at this point."
Let's just say that there was only one person who misled at the NPR debate on the topic of Sen. Obama's comments to the Chicago Tribune and that person was not Sen. Clinton.