In October 1962, a young president confronted one of the greatest crises of his century. After U.S. intelligence confirmed that the Soviets were shipping medium-range nuclear missiles to Cuba - missiles easily capable of reaching the United States, just 90 miles away - President John F. Kennedy considered whether to set fire to the Cold War.
The press was itching for a first strike by American forces, as was the public. The formidable Dean Acheson, an architect of the U.S. strategy of communist containment, pushed for an invasion of Cuba. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Kennedy: "Hit 'em without any warning whatsoever," according to Robert Smith Thompson's The Missiles of October.
But the 45-year-old Kennedy, who had barely won the Oval Office over the more experienced Richard Nixon, resisted. Instead, he pulled off a stunning diplomatic coup and averted what might have been all-out nuclear war. Kennedy - chastened, no doubt, by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion - had the backbone to stand up to an array of presumed wise men who wanted a military showdown.
Barack Obama, 46, has shown similar gumption. On Oct. 26, 2002, in the midst of a campaign for the U.S. Senate, he gave a speech in Chicago opposing the invasion of Iraq.
While Obama rightly acknowledged that Saddam Hussein was "a bad guy," he also pointed out: "Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors. ... I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."
While that may seem obvious now, it was not the widely held view in Washington. Indeed, the Senate had overwhelmingly passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war just two weeks earlier. Few Democrats with presidential ambitions wanted to be caught opposing the invasion. Hillary Clinton voted with Bush, as did John Kerry and John Edwards (who later repudiated his vote).
With the United States now mired in Iraq, and with those costs and consequences alarmingly clear, most Americans, preoccupied with a faltering economy, are ready to turn the page. They want to bring the troops home and forget about the warmongering and demagoguery that led to this foreign policy debacle. Old news, many say.
Not so fast. If voters are looking for clues about judgment and maturity and the capacity to make wise decisions in times of crisis, those early stances on Iraq are telling. As human resources experts are fond of pointing out, an employee's work history is a strong indicator of future performance.
Clinton is hardworking, bright and accomplished. She has mastered the intricacies of the U.S. Senate and the details of important public policy proposals. However, her Iraq vote was not only wrongheaded. It was also cynical. She made it without taking the time to do critical background research, work that would have revealed doubts about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction among U.S. intelligence agencies.
A 90-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the consensus of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, was made available to all members of the Senate, but she didn't bother to read it. (It's a classified document, but senators were permitted to read it at two secure locations on Capitol Hill.)
For a policymaker who prides herself on preparation and a mastery of detail, that was a curious lapse - suggesting she had made up her mind to cast a vote that would armor her against charges she was too soft to be commander in chief. In other words, she, like many others, sent young Americans to war to boost her political fortunes. That's not the only mistake Clinton has ever made, but it is the most damning.
In his seminal Chicago speech, Obama made clear that he's no naive pacifist. "I am not opposed to all wars," he said. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."
When it came to one of the most important issues of our generation, Clinton was smart enough to discern the right course. But Obama was courageous enough to take it.
© 2008 Atlanta Journal Constitution