As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fateful congressional vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, many are questioning what would have happened had Congress refused to go along. There was widespread public opposition to going to war at the time. The Catholic Church and every mainline Protestant denomination came out against the war, as did virtually every major labor union and other left-of-center organization that took a stand. The vast majority of the U.S. Middle East scholars opposed an invasion, being aware of the likely disastrous consequences. The vast majority of the world’s nations, including most of the United States’s closest allies, were also in opposition to the war.
Unlike the near-unanimous vote (save for Rep. Barbara Lee) the previous year authorizing military force in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war resolution was far more controversial. A sizable majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the resolution authorizing the invasion, which came to a vote on October 10, 2002. The Republicans then controlled the House, however, and it passed easily.
This left the determination as to whether the United States would go to war up to the Democratic-controlled Senate the following day. To the astonishment of many, several leading Democratic senators crossed the aisle to support the war authorization, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Assistant Majority Leader Harry Reid and Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joe Biden, as well as such prominent senators as John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, John Edwards and Dianne Feinstein.
All this was well-known at the time. Since then, however, a number of these Democrats, particularly those with presidential ambitions, have lied about their votes — and much of the mainstream media have allowed them to get away with it.
The primary excuse they have subsequently put forward has been that the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution,” as it was formally known, was not actually an authorization for use of military force against Iraq. Instead, these Democrats claim they did not actually support George W. Bush’s decision to invade in March 2003 but simply wanted to provide the administration with leverage to pressure Iraq to allow a return of UN inspectors, which President Clinton had ordered removed in 1998 prior to a four-day bombing campaign, and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had, quite predictably, not yet allowed to return.
Despite wording in the congressional resolution providing Bush with an open-ended authority to invade, John Kerry claimed in 2013 that he “opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq.” While running for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton insisted that she voted for the resolution simply because “we needed to put inspectors in, that was the underlying reason why I at least voted to give President Bush the authority,” and that she did not want to “wage a preemptive war.” Similarly, during his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden insisted he supported Bush’s war resolution not because he actually wanted to invade Iraq, but because “he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program,” and further claiming that, “Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.”
In reality, at the time of the vote on the war resolution, the Iraqi government had already agreed in principle to a return of the weapons inspectors and were negotiating with the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission on the details which were formally institutionalized a few weeks later. (Indeed, it would have likely been resolved earlier had the Bush administration not repeatedly postponed the UN Security Council resolution in the hopes of inserting language that would have allowed the United States to unilaterally interpret the level of compliance.) In addition, all three of these senators voted against the substitute amendment by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, which would have also granted President Bush authority to use force, but only if Iraq defied subsequent UN demands regarding the inspections process. Instead, they voted for the Republican-sponsored resolution to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing, regardless of whether inspectors returned.
More critically, when Bush launched the March 2003 invasion a full four months after large-scale weapons inspections had begun with no signs of any proscribed weapons or weapons facilities, Clinton, Biden and Kerry still argued that the invasion was necessary and lawful.
Biden defended the imminent launch of the invasion by saying, “I support the president. Diplomacy over avoiding war is dead. … I do not see any alternative. It is not as if we can back away now.” He added, “Let loose the dogs of war. I’m confident we will win.”
Soon after the launch of the invasion, despite the fact that four months of unfettered inspections had revealed none of the chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear programs or sophisticated delivery systems he claimed Iraq possessed, Biden insisted that “there was sufficient evidence to go into Iraq.”
Similarly, despite Saddam Hussein being in full compliance with the UN Security Council, Senator Clinton insisted that Hussein nevertheless needed to resign as president, leave Iraq and allow U.S. troops to occupy the country. “The president gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to avoid war,” Clinton said in a statement, “and the world hopes that Saddam Hussein will finally hear this ultimatum, understand the severity of those words, and act accordingly.”
When Hussein refused to resign and the Bush administration launched the invasion, all three of them voted in favor of a resolution calling for “unequivocal support” for Bush’s “firm leadership and decisive action” as “part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.” They insisted that Iraq was somehow still “in material breach of the relevant United Nations resolutions” and, despite the fact that weapons inspectors had found no evidence of any remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), they insisted the invasion was necessary to “neutralize Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”
Even when the three future Democratic presidential nominees acknowledged that Iraq had in fact disarmed from its proscribed weapons programs prior to the invasion, they still insisted that invading the oil-rich country was the right thing to do.
Many months after the absence of WMDs was confirmed, Clinton declared in a speech at George Washington University that her support for the authorization was still “the right vote” and one that “I stand by.” Similarly, in an interview on “Larry King Live” in April 2004, when asked about her vote despite the absence of WMDs or al-Qaeda ties she had insisted that Iraq had, she acknowledged, “I don’t regret giving the president authority.”
While running for president, Kerry — when asked whether he would support the war “knowing what we know now” about the absence of “weapons of mass destruction” — replied: “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.”
In another interview regarding the invasion, Kerry insisted: “I’m glad we did. There’s no ambivalence.” As late as October 2004, Kerry argued that “Congress was right to give the president the authority to use force to hold Saddam Hussein accountable.”
Similarly, not long after the Bush administration conceded that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” to be found, Biden told CNN, “I, for one, thought we should have gone in Iraq,” adding his disappointment that other Democrats weren’t as supportive. A couple of weeks later, on “Fox News Sunday,” even while acknowledging that Iraq didn’t actually have the weapons, weapons systems and weapons programs he claimed, Biden insisted, “I do think it was a just war.”
At a hearing in July 2003, Biden categorically stated, “I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again.” Days later, in the face of growing outrage by fellow Democrats about being misled into what was already becoming a bloody counterinsurgency struggle, Biden argued, “In my view, anyone who can’t acknowledge that the world is better off without [Saddam Hussein] is out of touch. … Contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner rather than later.”
Despite Bush’s case for the war now unarguably based on falsehoods, Biden insisted that Bush had made a good case for invading and said, “I commend the president.” More than a year later, as the death toll mounted, Biden insisted, in regard to his support for the invasion, “I still believe my vote was just.”
The violent legacy of the Iraq invasion will be with us for many decades to come. As a result, it is important to recognize the responsibility not just of the architects of the war within the Bush administration, but also of the congressional lawmakers from both parties who made it possible. The invasion was not simply a “mistake,” but an effective rejection of the United Nations Charter and the post-World War II international legal system. There were many months leading up to the passage of the war resolution during which scholars, peace activists, former UN inspectors, strategic analysts, and many others informed these senators that such an invasion would be illegal, unnecessary and have disastrous consequences. They knew.
Despite being among the right-wing minority of congressional Democrats who supported Bush’s war, all three of these senators were nominated by their party as their presidential candidate. Kerry and Clinton both lost very close elections in part because of their support for the war. These two later became secretaries of state, ironically under Barack Obama, an outspoken opponent of the war. Joe Biden became president, only to decide he supports the UN Charter’s prohibition against aggressive war after all — as long as the aggressor is an adversarial nation like Russia.
That the more progressive of the two major U.S. parties would be so forgiving of candidates who supported an illegal, unnecessary and predictably disastrous war and then also lied about it is a sad reflection of the state of U.S. politics. The vast majority of Americans now recognize the invasion of Iraq was wrong. Yet we can be surprisingly forgiving of those who supported such a calamity, or even forget that they did so.