For Barack Obama and the Iraq war, what a difference nine years makes. On Wednesday, he was the commander in chief, arriving at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Air Force One, saluted by generals, cheered by soldiers, and covered live by all three cable news networks. He was there to proclaim what he called “this moment of success” – the end of the war.
In his speech, the president claimed victory even if he avoided the unfortunate “Mission Accomplished” banner displayed behind his predecessor in 2003 when George W. Bush used an aircraft carrier for what turned out to be a tragically premature declaration.
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But it was quite a different scene nine years ago on Oct. 2, 2002, when Obama delivered his first Iraq war speech, one that he parlayed into his party’s Democratic presidential nomination, using it time and again as proof he was more in tune with Democratic voters than the heavy favorite, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. For that speech, the audience was tiny and the setting less than dramatic, with only 700 to 1,000 people gathered in Chicago’s Federal Plaza at the intersection of Dearborn and Adams in the shadow of Calder’s towering Flamingo sculpture.
Obama, a little-known state senator then, was so unimportant that his speech wasn’t even mentioned in the stories run by the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. The star overshadowing Obama that day was the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And even in the age of YouTube, no known video exists of Obama’s full remarks, prompting his presidential campaign in 2008 to restage the speech for use in a campaign commercial.
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But that speech – buttressed by later speeches at subsequent “Take Back America" conferences -- gave Obama entrée to Democratic voters angry at Clinton’s vote to support the war, cited repeatedly by the presidential candidate as a show of courage and prescience. “On the most important national security question since the Cold War,” he said often, “I am the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning.” The phrase best remembered from the Chicago speech was his declaration, “I don’t oppose all wars.... What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
On Wednesday, when he addressed the cheering troops who had prosecuted that war and buried many of their comrades who fell in combat, there was no more talk about it being a "dumb war." Instead, there was gratitude and praise from a commander in chief.
And the White House was deflecting all attempts to remind anyone of that rhetoric of 2002. Earlier in the week, he was asked by Christi Parsons of the Chicago Tribune if he still thinks of this as a dumb war. The president cautiously deflected the question, responding, “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq. But what's absolutely clear is, as a consequence of the enormous sacrifices that have been made by ... American troops and civilians, as well as the courage of the Iraqi people, that what we have now achieved is an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive, and that has enormous potential.”
Reporters tried again on the flight to North Carolina, noting the many sacrifices made over the last decade of the war to ask Press Secretary Jay Carney: “Was it worth it?” Carney also was cautious. “History will judge whether the war was worth it,” he said, adding, “The president’s position has not changed, which is that he did not support getting into this war, did not support the way that the previous administration led us to war in Iraq. And he made that clear during the campaign and that’s not a position that’s changed.”
Carney moved the narrative forward, stating that Obama as candidate and president promised to end the war “responsibly; to making sure that the steps he took as commander in chief were the right ones to ensure that America’s national-security interests were protected, and that the incredible sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, of their families and of the broader American public in Iraq were validated.”
It was that sacrifice that was at the heart of the Fort Bragg speech. The numbers he rattled off were sobering: one-and-a-half-million Americans serving in the war; more than 30,000 wounded; nearly 4,500 killed. He reminded the soldiers that when the war began, “Many of you were in grade school. I was a state senator.” He told them that “because of you, we are ending these wars in a way that will make America stronger and the world more secure.” He said that historians will assess the strategic lessons of Iraq. “But,” he added to cheers, “the most important lesson that we can take from you is not about military strategy. It’s a lesson about our national character. For all of the challenges that our nation faces, you remind us that there’s nothing we Americans can’t do when we stick together.”
And there certainly was no suggestion of a “dumb” cause when he invoked their legacy:
“As your commander in chief, I can tell you that it will, indeed, be part of history. Those last American troops will move south on desert sands. And then they will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high. One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end. Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over.”