The war that made a president

Barack Obama’s speech may not mark the end of the war in Iraq — it is, rather, the beginning of the end — but it certainly marks a milestone in a personal odyssey that took an unknown young politician from obscurity all the way to the White House.

For it was the war in Iraq which propelled Obama’s candidacy for the presidency. In October 2002 he made a speech which, in some ways, remains the most important of his career. Then a mere member of the Illinois state senate, he joined a peace rally in Chicago and declared his opposition to “A dumb war. A rash war.’’ That stance helped him in his 2004 bid for the United States Senate, but it mattered much more at the start of 2007, when

he launched his improbable presidential campaign.

The advantage Obama had over all his main competitors for the nomination — and especially frontrunner Hillary Clinton — was that he had opposed the invasion of Iraq while they had supported it.

Indeed, he could point to the very week he had taken his stance in Chicago as the moment Clinton and the others cast their senate votes to give George Bush the authority to wage war against Saddam.

As the war became ever more unpopular, especially among Democrats, that left Obama perfectly placed as the anti-war candidate. He could boast of his superior position, while Clinton was pressured to admit she had been wrong.

Later, in the contest against John McCain, Obama could neutralise his opponent’s claims of greater experience by insisting that what mattered more was judgment — and that Obama had proven his was superior.

So it is no exaggeration to say that President Obama would not be where he is

today had it not been for the Iraq war and his stance on it. All of which lent an

extra charge to the announcement he made on February 27.

He was able to unveil a plan for “how the war in Iraq will end’’ without ambivalence, needing no contorted formulations to explain why he had changed his position — and no pretence that a clear-cut victory had been won — as would have been required by either a President McCain or President Hillary Clinton. He could be straightforward: this was a war he would never have started and now he was going to end it.

There was no shock in the speech: a combat troop withdrawal date a couple of months beyond the 16-month timetable he had promised in the 2008

campaign had been widely expected. Nor is it a surprise that all American troops

will aim to be gone from Iraq by the end of 2011:

that much was implied in the status of forces agreement concluded with the Iraqi government.

But to hear it directly from the mouth of a sitting American president, rather than low-level officials, and without heavy caveats, gives it enormous power.

It means Barack Obama is determined to go into the 2012 election campaign as the man who did what he promised, ending an unpopular war. And it marks yet another step in Obama’s steady repudiation of his predecessor.

In little more than a month, he has ordered the closure of Guantanamo

and he declared a few days ago that “the United States does not torture.’’ He drew one more line under the Bush era, seeking to conclude its most neuralgic episode. — The Guardian