I gave Biden one more chance to speak with me, this time in June 2002, when I was in Washington pushing for in-depth hearings on Iraq. It was less than a year since the events of 9/11, and I was concerned that the issue of Iraq and al-Qaida were being dangerously morphed into one and the same. If the Senate could conduct meaningful hearings on Iraq, perhaps the war drums could be silenced long enough to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and thus bring fact-based clarity to the rhetorically based speculation that was running rampant at the time. Biden, Kerry and Sen. Richard Lugar all turned down meetings, saying that Senate hearings on Iraq were “not on the table at this time.” Barely a month later, at the end of July 2002, Sen. Biden, together with Sen. Lugar, convened a hearing on Iraq with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In an Op-Ed article published in The New York Times (July 31, 2002), Biden and Lugar described the purpose of these sudden hearings: “Without prejudging any particular course of action—including the possibility of staying with non-military options—we hope to start a national discussion of some critical questions.” But there was really only one option being considered by Joe Biden: regime change. Biden never saw fit to challenge the conventional thinking concerning Iraq’s WMD programs. He never saw fit to, as he once wrote in reference to me, “call on your knowledge and expertise in the future as we move forward in making some difficult choices.” The choice, as Biden made clear in his opening statement at the hearing, was simple: How to “remove a tyrant” without “leaving chaos in his wake.” Biden’s concerns did not revolve around WMD and the legitimacy of a U.S. war, but rather around how to achieve “ … a better understanding of what it would take to secure Iraq and rebuild it economically and politically.”
That Joe Biden is an architect of the war in Iraq is without question. His hearings and the manner in which he shaped the conduct of those hearings (prohibiting, for instance, the appearance of witnesses such as myself and Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponek, both senior U.N. diplomats who directed U.N. humanitarian operations inside Iraq) were geared for facilitating a vote in the Senate authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq—a declaration of war, so to speak. Only Biden can answer questions concerning his conduct at this critical juncture in our nation’s history. But the fact that Barack Obama would select as his running mate a man so heavily involved in bringing about the war in Iraq, at a time when Obama claims to be in opposition to that very same war, speaks volumes about the lack of judgment and, frankly speaking, character of the senator from Illinois who aspires to be commander in chief.
I am not one of those who accept at face value Barack Obama’s contention that he is an anti-war candidate. True, unlike Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Joe Biden, Barack Obama did not vote in favor of the Iraq war powers resolution in October 2002: He was not in the U.S. Congress. However, there is nothing in Obama’s statements, actions and record of collaborations (including his selection for vice president) that back up his assertions that he would have voted against the resolution if he had been in Congress at the time. One must be judged, in the absence of demonstrable action, on the record of past patterns of behavior.
Obama’s short tenure in the Senate has shown him to be an astute political survivor who has taken the path of least resistance when it comes to the most critical (and politically sensitive) issues. This is especially true concerning Iraq (Obama is a consistent supporter of fully funding a war he claims to oppose) and Iran (Obama’s ongoing embrace of the Bush administration’s case against Tehran, despite the many similarities between the Iran situation and the buildup to the war in Iraq, including wild exaggerations on issues pertaining to threats derived from weapons of mass destruction programs based more on rhetoric than fact, fear-based charges void of substance concerning “terrorism” and “sponsorship of terror”). While we will never know for certain, I am strongly inclined to believe that, had Obama in fact been a senator in 2002, his status as a political animal with high aspirations would have compelled him to take the same politically expedient move all of his similarly inclined senatorial colleagues did, and vote in favor of the war powers resolution.
People today spend a lot of time discussing the relative merits of the vice presidential picks of both candidates. While I in no way share the value systems of a Sarah Palin, I am comfortable that neither does John McCain. There is a reason why the religious right in America does not like him. And while Palin will be only a heartbeat away from the presidency if McCain is elected president, the choice is still about John McCain versus Barack Obama. Palin is but a footnote in this matter. I know why McCain picked Palin as his running mate: It was an act of crass politics, a caving in to the religious right which constitutes such an important part of the current base of the Republican Party. It was this same sort of craven submission to the radical right which caused me to move away from McCain back in 2000. Nothing which occurred at the 2008 Republican National Convention, from the standpoint of Republican actions, surprised me.
But the Republican National Convention did provide a fuller backdrop from which to better assess the Democratic Party’s nominee, Barack Obama and, sadly, he was, and is, lacking in so many ways. The choice of Joe Biden as his running mate was as crass a political move as was McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, with one major exception: Palin was selected to shore up McCain’s shortfalls among the Republican base. Biden, on the other hand, was selected to shore up the shortfalls of Barack Obama. McCain can overcome his shortcomings among his political base. It is questionable whether Obama can overcome his own weaknesses.
The American people are, in my opinion, ready for change. McCain is running away from the past eight years of the Bush presidency as fast as he possibly can. This is never a good thing, especially since both McCain and Bush are from the same party. Obama talks the talk of change, but it is not certain that he can walk the walk. No matter how hard he tries, his fundamental lack of experience in the critical fields of foreign policy and national security compel him to take the safe road of conformity, morphing into a Republican-light candidate whose pronouncements of command capability ring empty.
Ralph Nader is right: The two-party system is failing America. There isn’t time between now and Election Day to create a viable third-party candidate, and so the sad reality is one of two deeply flawed men, the byproduct of a deeply flawed political system, will serve as president for the next four or eight years. During the time before the election, both candidates will do their best to woo the American people. McCain will base his courtship on the false promise of security, and his exaggerated sense of duty-driven purpose that he claims he alone can provide. Barack Obama can trump John McCain’s militaristic vision of American greatness by returning to his own core values, those which inspired America and breathed life into the audacity of hope. But to do this he will need to re-engage on the issue of national security in a manner which clearly sets himself apart from McCain.
The war in Iraq continues to be a disaster, as is the war in Afghanistan. There is no need to seek out additional military adventure against either Iran or Russia. Obama must reject the neoconservative agenda of global hegemony set forth in the Bush administration’s national security strategy, and define a new course which has America assuming a leadership role in seeking multilateral solutions based upon fact-based criteria driven not by American power and greed but rather the rule of law. America needs and wants a change for the better. If Obama can succeed in capturing the imagination of the American people by convincing them that he is a viable candidate of change, then he will be the next president of the United States. But what I learned from my experience observing the Republican National Convention is that Barack Obama has a long way to go, and a short time to get there.
Scott Ritter is a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq and author of “Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Anti-War Movement” (Nation Books, 2007).