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Obama's First-Ever Foreign Policy Debate (2000): A Dovish Call to Cut the 'Tools of War


“The total cost of the Stars Wars program...could have been used to expand health insurance to 44 million uninsured Americans..."

Obama debates Congressman Rush during one of their other debates. (Photo: YouTube)

This is a special contribution by freelance writer Charles C. Johnson.


Obama debates Congressman Rush during one of their other debates. (Photo: YouTube)

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off for the foreign policy debate, it’s worth recalling Obama’s first ever recorded views on foreign policy in a 2000 congressional debate in which he called for massive defense cuts to build “an infrastructure for peace instead of more tools for war” and spend massively on health care, government-run schools, and state-directed development.

The then-state senator Obama appeared dovish, calling upon his Democrat primary opponent, Congressman Bobby Rush, to join him in opposing any more missile defense appropriations “in the next century and to build an infrastructure for peace instead of more tools for war.” In Obama’s view, were America to cut defense spending, it could afford more social services spending.

“Obama said the $13 billion cost for the project is a little more than the cost of the Illinois FIRST infrastructure program,” wrote Chinta Strausberg of The Chicago Defender on January 31, 2000. “The total cost of the Stars Wars program, over $100 billion, could have been used to expand health insurance to 44 million uninsured Americans, reduce class size at schools across the nation, or stimulate economic development in distressed communities throughout the country,” Obama said.

He continued assailing military spending, calling the missile defense program a “boondoggle and an unmitigated failure.”

“Congress has spent $100 billion over the last 15 years developing Ronald Reagan's Star Wars plan,” Obama told The Defender. “The latest test, at a cost of $100 million, shows that this system is an expensive political boondoggle.”

To defend his position, Obama cited the support of Michael C. Dawson, a famous black professor, who was at the time director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. Dawson’s position, then, is eerily similar to Obama’s position now.

“The Star Wars program is the greatest threat to international arms control agreements and has the potential to spark a new arms race that the U.S., China, and Russia can ill afford,” Dawson said at the time. Dawson also showed the wishful thinking that Obama has continued into his presidency: “Russia has promised to abandon its arm control commitments and China will accelerate its missile building effort if the U.S. proceeds with the creation of an anti-ballistic system.”

Obama’s decision to quote Dawson was crassly political, especially as Dawson knew little, if anything, about missiles or the underlying technology. Obama’s use of Dawson can be seen as attempting to achieve solidarity with South Side Chicago blacks, who ultimately voted for Bobbie Rush in a two-to-one landslide in the district that has been represented by blacks the longest.

By contrast, Professor Angelo Codevilla of the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus of Boston University has worked on missile defense issues for the better part of three decades. He literally wrote the book on it — While Others Build: The Commonsense Approach to the Strategic Defense Initiative — and knows more about the missile defense business—the technology as well as the policy—than anyone in government. Codevilla has worked in the U.S. Foreign Service, C.I.A., the U.S. State Department, and the Reagan transition teams.  He even conceived of the idea that became missile defense. If “Star Wars”—or the Strategic Defense Initiative—has a godfather, Codevilla is it.

So what does he think of Obama’s comments that say missile defense is a waste of resources?

"No one should be surprised that Barack Obama secretly promised Russia's dictator Vladimir Putin that he, if re-elected would work with him to curtail further the US government's token efforts at defending Americans against ballistic missiles,” told me. “As the Chicago Defender article shows, opposition to defending America and her allies from ballistic missiles was part of Barack Obama's identity when he was yet a state senator. Indeed it was part of his identity when, as a student at Columbia, he published a screed against American defenses in the college newspaper. In short, President Barack Obama, opposition to the American people's self-defense has never been a choice of policy, but rather an affirmation of socio-political identity."

​Editor's note: You can view the debate between Obama and Rush captured in the image above here and here. While it is not the one mentioned in the Defender article, it does give you a sense of how a young Obama approached some issues.

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