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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s War Stance, Revisited

Donald Trump’s campaign manager falsely stated that “everybody just took [then Senator Barack Obama] at his word” in 2008 when he said he would have voted against invading Iraq. In fact, Obama publicly spoke out against the war in October 2002, before the U.S. Senate voted on the authorization of military force.

Kellyanne Conway was interviewed Sept. 9 on “CBS This Morning” and was asked about Trump’s repeated claims that he had opposed the war in Iraq before it started on March 19, 2003, and had warned that it would “destabilize the Middle East.” (We found no evidence of that.)

CBS played a clip of Trump telling radio host Howard Stern on Sept. 11, 2002, “Yeah, I guess so,” when asked if he supported invading Iraq. CBS host Charlie Rose then asked Conway, “So is Donald Trump for the Iraq War or against it?”

Conway, Sept. 9: He was a private citizen who was against the Iraq War. You heard him with Howard Stern say, “Yeah, I guess so.” Had he been in the United States Senate, he would have casted [sic] a vote against the Iraq War.

Rose: How do we know that?

Conway: Because he said so. The same thing that Senator Obama said he would’ve done in 2008 and everybody just took him at his word.

But everybody didn’t just take Obama “at his word.” He spoke at an anti-war rally in Chicago on Oct. 2, 2002, the same day the resolution authorizing the use of military force in Iraq was introduced in Congress. The Senate voted on and passed that resolution on Oct. 11, 2002, by a 77-23 vote. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush five days later.

At the time of the anti-war rally, Obama was an Illinois state senator. In his book “Obama: From Promise to Power,” published in 2007, journalist David Mendell wrote of the event: “A rally in the city’s Federal Plaza … in October 2002, was assembled by an aide to former U.S. senator Paul Simon and a mainstream liberal public relations expert. The rally featured a pointed anti-war speech from Obama, then a fairly anonymous state lawmaker, who deemed the impending Iraq engagement ‘a dumb war.'”

The weekly Chicago Defender reported on Oct. 3, 2002, that nearly 3,000 people had attended the rally the day before.

Chicago Defender, Oct. 3, 2002: Nearly 3,000 people attended an anti-Iraq war rally Wednesday where the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and Illinois Senator Barack Obama (D-13th) warned the Bush administration that a war against Iraq undermines U.N. protocol.

The text of Obama’s remarks was posted to his 2008 campaign website. He called the war “dumb,” “rash” and “based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” Among his remarks:

Obama, Oct. 2, 2002: Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, and before, the media were well aware of this 2002 speech.

NPR reported in March 2008: “On the campaign trail, Obama promotes his 2002 speech in steady and relentless fashion.” That story said that a recording of the speech “is all but impossible to find,” but NPR interviewed people who said they had witnessed the anti-war speech. A New Republic article from Feb. 27, 2008, described the October 2002 anti-war rally, and detailed Obama’s many statements on the war since then.

Obama’s primary opponent in 2008, Hillary Clinton, and her campaign had challenged Obama’s consistency on the issue.

The New York Times reported in July 2004, just before then U.S. Sen. Obama was set to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, that despite his 2002 opposition to the war, he “declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards [the Democratic presidential ticket] for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.”

The Times quoted Obama as saying, “But, I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don’t know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made.”

Obama later said he didn’t want to criticize the Democratic ticket. And in a Nov. 23, 2004, interview on “The Charlie Rose Show,” Obama was asked directly by Rose, “if you had been a member of the Senate, you would have voted against the resolution?” Obama responded, “Yes.”

We of course can’t say how Obama or Trump would have actually voted had either been members of the U.S. Senate at the time. But Conway ignores the public record in saying that everyone took Obama at his word and should now do the same for Trump. Obama was on record opposing the war before the Senate voted on the authorization for military force. Trump, meanwhile, had expressed mild support for the war a month before that vote.

In the CBS interview, Conway went on to say that besides the Howard Stern radio interview, “there are other public statements that [Trump] made contemporaneously with that including the Esquire magazine interview where he gives a much longer answer about why he thinks it was a bad idea.”

As we’ve written before, that Esquire interview was published in August 2004, 17 months after the war had started. As our timeline on Trump’s comments on the war shows, he expressed concern about the war, particularly the cost, a few months after it started. But despite his repeated claims that he was against the war before it started, the campaign has produced no evidence of that.