The first time John Drew met Barack Obama, the fashionably dressed, 19-year-old Obama had just disembarked from a friend’s “sleek, expensive luxury car.”
Drew, Obama and friends then spent the evening discussing anti-colonialism and the imminent Marxist revolution. Although Drew was already in process of shedding these enthusiasms, Obama may never have.
There is something else, however, that Obama has not outgrown, and that is his paradoxical fondness for the trappings of success. Everyone who has known him well knows how ambitious Obama is.
In the skies over Libya, arguably for the first time, President Obama’s political ambitions and his anti-war, anti-colonial politics have butted heads in a way that cannot easily be finessed.
“It is indeed his war,” John Kass writes bitingly in the Chicago Tribune. “He started it. He gave the order to launch the missiles over the weekend. And now the man who ran for president as an anti-war candidate owns his very own war.”
Obama is new to this kind of conflict. For the first 20 years of his adult life – at Occidental, at Columbia, at Harvard, in Chicago – his radical politics only greased his ambitions.
It was not until Obama raised his political sights in 2002 that he began to understand that something might have to give.
In the retelling, the day of reckoning came on Oct. 2, 2002, at an impromptu rally staged by the Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq.
Here, State Sen. Obama gave a speech second in career importance only to the 2004 DNC keynote. This was the speech that enabled his handlers to position him on the credibly sane left flank of naïfs like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, “who took the president at his word” and voted for the war in Iraq.
In the orthodox Obama canon, this was his “Lion King” moment, the occasion on which his principles triumphed over the demands of politics.
At Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum in 2008, Obama would tell the audience that protesting the war was his most “gut-wrenching decision,” largely because of its “political consequences.”
Obama’s official 2008 website attested to the anguish. “As a candidate for the United States Senate in 2002,” the website claimed, “Obama put his political career on the line to oppose going to war in Iraq.”
This, of course, was all nonsense. Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, in his valuable 2007 biography, “Obama: From Promise to Power,” offers a useful corrective.
At the time, as Mendell relates, Obama was keen on taking a shot at the U.S. Senate in 2004. He envisioned as his base of support blacks and lakefront liberals, the former for their votes, and the latter for their money.
When Obama asked adviser Dan Shomon whether he should accept the invite to speak at the anti-war rally, Shomon told him it was a “no-brainer.” That much said, Shomon advised Obama to be cautious given the “political ramifications to whatever you say.”
Obama got the message. His radical pals knew that the path to power was a long march with the occasional detour. They would understand. So Obama spoke, but cautiously.
Indeed, in the very first sentence of the speech, Obama offered the unlikely caveat that he was “not opposed to war in all circumstances,” a point that he was at pains to reinforce.
Obama promptly cited the American Civil War as a war he could support. Obama also gave his belated approval to World War II.
As to why Obama opposed the war in Iraq six months before it began, there is some confusion. Six years later, he would tell Rick Warren that he “was firmly convinced at the time that we did not have strong evidence of weapons of mass destruction.”
This point would have delighted the crowd at Chicago’s Federal Plaza had he made it, but he did not. In October 2002, Obama made a more politic claim entirely, namely that although Saddam “butchers his own people” and has “developed chemical and biological weapons and coveted nuclear capacity,” the war was “dumb,” nonetheless.
If later confused about his motives, Obama could never forget the speech’s emotional toll. He would tell Mendell that this was his “most courageous” speech, unaware that Mendell himself saw the speech as “a political calculation.”
Indeed, given the political drift of Obama’s intended base, supporting the war in 2002 would have been the courageous thing to do.
Unlike Iraq in 2002, Libya in 2011 is anything but a “no-brainer” for the president of the United States, especially this one.
Military intervention, especially if short and successful, typically raises a president’s stock, and Obama can count on his unprincipled minions in the media to support whatever course he takes.
What Obama cannot count on is the hard left. Bellwether Rep. Dennis Kucinich, for instance, is already planning an amendment to defund military action in Libya.
Nation of Islam honcho, Louis Farrakhan, flat out blasted the president. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he asked of Obama on Chicago radio.
The one fellow traveler whose opinion Obama fears, however, has yet to speak publicly on the subject. That would be his erstwhile Chicago mentor Bill Ayers.
Ayers did speak out forcibly when Obama upped the ante in Afghanistan. But given Ayers’ meddling in Egypt on the side of the anti-government forces, one cannot be certain that he will take the stand on Libya that many of his allies already have.
If Ayers does come out against America’s intervention in Libya, Obama will have real problems. Ayers can undermine Obama’s genius myth in a swipe by confirming his own major role in the construction of Obama’s acclaimed memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
For the first time during the presidency, Ayers’ friends will understand if he outs his ungrateful protégé. That revelation alone will cost Obama re-election.
Ambition sometimes is a two-edged sword.
For those friends of yours with short attention spans, please share this two-minute animation, which sums up our involvement in Libya.