When U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was in Springfield last weekend for a town meeting with military veterans about the sorry state of veterans’ benefits, he missed a good chance to talk to the vets about the war in Iraq.
He had passed up an earlier chance to address the issue when Newsweek interviewed him for its Dec. 27 cover story, “Who’s next 2005.” “The Dems’ freshest face has a new challenge —” declared the magazine, “to help his party relocate its moral core.” The article mentioned that Obama was an “early opponent” of the war, but that was all it said. Obama’s fresh approach to moral values requires a “new narrative” that employs “power and mystery” to restore “timeless values.” But, so far as we can tell from Newsweek, it doesn’t involve ending a bad war.
With the veterans in Springfield, he stayed on message and out of trouble. Declaring that the Illinois disability-compensation system is “broken,” he quoted George Washington: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” It would have been easy to go from there to say that until we can take care of the old disabled veterans, we shouldn’t be making so many new ones. According to the Pentagon, about 10,000 U.S. troops have been wounded in Iraq, many with severe injuries they would have died of in earlier wars. And thousands more are returning from Iraq mentally crippled from the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder [see Dan Frosch, “Bringing the war home,” Dec. 16]. But Obama — like other Democrats in post-election Washington — hasn’t found his voice yet on the war itself.
I’m not sure that criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy would have been all that controversial with the veterans. The few I interviewed at random at the town meeting expressed little support for the war. Bill Quick of Mt. Vernon, state commander of the Amvets, noted a general feeling among veterans that “it’s better to fight the enemy over there than over here.” But he said that few veterans are pleased with the way the Iraq war is going. “We’ll all be glad when it’s over.” Dennis Guernsey of Springfield, a Vietnam veteran who is past state commander of the Disabled American Veterans, was more adamant: “I think going into Iraq was a big mistake. It’s the first time I know of when we did preemptive strikes. We had no reason to do it. If I had the power to do anything, I would be bringing the troops back home.”
William Yokem Jr. of Springfield, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, said that he’s concerned about the mental problems American troops are bringing home from Iraq. “It’s worse than Vietnam,” he said. “It’s time to wrap it up over there. This war is getting old.” Anthony Rhone of Springfield, also a Vietnam-era vet, said, “Every day we’re getting people killed over there — and we don’t even know who the enemy is.”
So after the event I asked the freshest face of the Democratic Party what he’s going to do about the war. He took the question seriously and replied thoughtfully, as though he knows his silence is showing. “I’ve said that going into Iraq was a bad idea in the first place. But I’ve also said we couldn’t leave without stabilizing the country,” he told me. “The administration is counting on the elections, but elections aren’t really going to end the violence. At the confirmation hearings, we asked Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice for a specific timetable for training Iraqi troops to take over. She said she would get back to us, but I don’t want to wait very long.”
What do you mean, you don’t want to wait very long?
“I want to give the administration the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of their new term,” Obama said, “but I don’t want to find out later we haven’t done enough to secure the peace. If that happens, I will become much more vocal, and so will many others.”
Well, that’s a promise. We hired this junior senator and made him a star with the expectation that he would become much more vocal. We don’t want to wait very long.