Anybody Think a State Senator From Illinois Would End the Iraq War? Bueller?

When the Iraq War began, did anyone think an Illinois state senator would end it?

Probably not, but the prologue to President Obama’s speech from the Oval Office on Tuesday night was delivered by state Senator Obama at an anti-war rally in Federal Plaza on Oct. 2, 2002. It helped define him as a political figure, and put him into a position to eventually end the war he opposed even before it started.

Obama was the only state senator at the rally. Some of his friends warned him against attending. As a legislator, he wasn’t expected to have a position on foreign policy. As a Senate candidate, he could hurt himself Downstate by speaking out against what might be a quick, popular war. Even some established Illinois leaders like Mayor Daley were reticent to speak out.

Obama, however, understood that you win a primary – especially a crowded primary – by motivating special interests. He was already the most liberal candidate in the field. An anti-war, anti-Bush speech would make him even more appealing to Democrats who were feeling distraught and powerless over the country’s race to war and were still angry about the 2000 presidential election. These were the activists who wrote checks, stood in front of supermarkets with petitions, made phone calls, and always voted.

“Good afternoon,” Obama began. “Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don’t oppose all wars.

“My grandfather signed up for a war the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s army. He saw the dead and dying across the fields of Europe; he heard the stories of fellow troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain.

“I don’t oppose all wars… What I am opposed to is a dumb war. A rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and hardships borne.”

It was a brave speech. Obama wasn’t just challenging a popular war, he was also challenging the pacifist assumptions of his audience, which was made up of ’60s Movement veterans who pasted “Peace Is Patriotic” stickers on their car bumpers.

In the days afterward, the text was circulated on the Internet, where such sites as Democratic Underground, Truthout, Buzzflash and Daily Kos were becoming important forums for opponents of the Bush Administration. The speech also cemented the support of wealthy liberals who would fund Obama’s campaign. When Obama ran for president, he was able to draw on the support of the anti-war movement to help him defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had voted in favor of the Iraq War resolution.

In that way, the Iraq War helped raise to prominence the man who would begin to bring the troops home.

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