The Democrats who voted to support the war and rationalized that vote by making false claims about Iraq’s WMD programs – a minority of Democrats, but much over-represented in Democratic leadership councils – were responsible for allowing the Bush administration to get away with lying about Iraq’s alleged threat.
Here on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, it is important to remember that it was not just those in the Bush White House who were responsible for the tragedy, but leading members of Congress as well, some of whom are now in senior positions in the Obama administration. The 4,500 Americans killed, the far larger number permanently wounded, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and millions displaced, the trillion dollars of US taxpayers’ money squandered (and the resulting cutbacks through sequestration), the continued costs of the war through veterans’ benefits and interest on the national debt, and the anti-American extremism in reaction to the invasion and occupation which has spread throughout much of the world all could have been avoided if the Democratic-controlled Senate hadn’t voted to authorize this illegal and unnecessary war and occupation.
On this and other web sites – as well as in many scores of policy reports, newspaper articles, academic journals and other sources – the tragic consequences of a US invasion of Iraq and a refutation of falsehoods being put forward by the Bush administration to justify it were made available to every member of the House and Senate (see, for example, my cover story in The Nation magazine The Case Against a War with Iraq). The 2003 vote authorizing the invasion was not like the vote on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the use of force against North Vietnam, for which Congress had no time for hearings or debate and for which most of those supporting it (mistakenly) thought they were simply authorizing limited short-term retaliatory strikes in response to a specific series of alleged incidents. By contrast, in regard to the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Congress had many months to investigate and debate the administration’s claims that Iraq was a threat as well as the likely implications of a US invasion. Members of Congress also fully recognized that the resolution authorized a full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation and a subsequent military occupation of an indefinite period.
Violating International Legal Conventions
Those who voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq did so despite the fact that it violated international legal conventions which the US government is legally bound to uphold. The resolution constituted a clear violation of the United Nations Charter that, like other ratified international treaties, should be treated as supreme law, according to Article VI of the US Constitution. According to articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter, no member state has the right to enforce any resolution militarily unless the UN Security Council determines that there has been a material breach of its resolution, decides that all non-military means of enforcement have been exhausted, and then specifically authorizes the use of military force.
This is what the Security Council did in November 1990 with Resolution 678 in response to Iraq’s ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions demanding its withdrawal from Kuwait, but the Security Council did not do so for any subsequent lesser Iraqi violations. The only other exception for the use of force authorized by the charter is in self-defense against armed attack, which even the Bush administration admitted had not taken place.
This effective renunciation of the UN Charter’s prohibition against such wars of aggression constituted an effective repudiation of the post-WWII international legal order. Alternative resolutions, such as one authorizing force against Iraq if authorized by the UN Security Council, were voted down by a bipartisan majority.
Members of Congress were also alerted by large numbers of scholars of the Middle East, Middle Eastern political leaders, former State Department and intelligence officials and others who recognized that a US invasion would likely result in a bloody insurgency, a rise in Islamist extremism and terrorism, increased sectarian and ethnic conflict, and related problems. Few people I know who are familiar with Iraq were at all surprised that the US invasion has become such a tragedy. Indeed, most of us were in communication with Congressional offices and often with individual members of Congress themselves in the months leading up to the vote warning of the likely consequences of an invasion and occupation. Therefore, subsequent claims by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Harry Reid and other leading Democratic supporters of the war that they were unaware of the likely consequences of the invasion are completely false.
The resolution also contained accusations that were known or widely assumed to be false at that time, such as claims of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. A definitive report by the Department of Defense noted that not only did no such link exist but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based on the evidence available at that time.
The Senate resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq was “actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability.” In reality, Iraq had long eliminated its nuclear program, a fact that was confirmed in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998, four years prior to the resolution.
The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq at that time continued “to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability.” In reality, as the US government now admits, Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons nearly a decade earlier and no longer had any active chemical and biological weapons programs. This likelihood that Iraq no longer had operational chemical or biological weapons was brought to the attention of members of Congress by a number of top arms control specialists, as well as Scott Ritter, the American who headed UNSCOM’s efforts to locate Iraq’s possible hidden caches of chemical and biological weapons, hidden supplies or secret production facilities.
Virtually all of Iraq’s known stockpiles of chemical and biological agents had been accounted for and the shelf life of the small amount of materiel that had not been accounted for – which, as it turned out, had also been destroyed – had long since expired and could therefore have no longer been of weapons grade. There was no evidence that Iraq had any delivery systems for such weapons, either. In addition, the strict embargo, in effect since 1990, against imports of any additional materials needed for the manufacture of WMDs, combined with Iraq’s inability to manufacture such weapons or delivery systems themselves without detection, made any claims that Iraq constituted any “significant chemical and biological weapons capability” transparently false to anyone who cared to investigate the matter at that time. Indeed, even the classified full version of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, while grossly overestimating Iraq’s military capability, was filled with extensive disagreements, doubts and caveats regarding President Bush’s assertions regarding Iraq’s WMDs, WMD programs, and delivery systems.
The House and Senate members who now claim they were “misled” about Iraq’s alleged military threat have failed to explain why they found the administration’s claims so much more convincing than the many other reports made available to them from more objective sources that presumably made a much stronger case that Iraq no longer had offensive WMD capability. Curiously, not a single member of Congress has agreed to allow me any access to any documents they claim convinced them of the alleged Iraqi threat except for one excerpt from a 2002 National Security Estimate released in July 2003 – widely ridiculed at the time for its transparently manipulated content. In effect, they are using the infamous Nixon defense from the Watergate scandal that claims that while they have evidence to vindicate themselves, making it public would somehow damage national security. In reality, if such reports actually exist, they are clearly inaccurate and outdated and would therefore be of no threat to national security if made public.
The Democrats who voted to support the war and rationalized that vote by making false claims about Iraq’s WMD programs were responsible for allowing the Bush administration to get away with lying about Iraq’s alleged threat. For example, Bush was able to note how “more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate – who had access to the same intelligence – voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.” In a 2005 speech attacking anti-war activists, Bush noted how, “Many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: ‘When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security.'”
Indeed, the fact that 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry chose to make such demonstrably false statements and voted in favor of the resolution likely cost the Democrats the White House since it led many potential supporters, myself included, to refuse to vote for him. Furthermore, because of Kerry’s vote in support for the war and his false claims about Iraq’s weapons capabilities, the debate during the fall campaign was not about who was right about Iraq (since they were both wrong), but Kerry’s alleged “flip-flopping” for belatedly raising questions about the conduct of the war.
Kerry was not alone in rushing to the defense of the Bush administration. Despite serious doubts being raised by arms control specialists, including some within the US government, about Iraq having proscribed weapons and a series of articles in academic journals, daily newspapers and elsewhere disputing the administration’s claims, Senator Hillary Clinton, in justification of her vote to authorize the invasion, falsely insisted that Iraq’s possession of such weapons was “not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” Despite her lies, Obama named her his first secretary of State.
Similarly, Senator Joe Biden, then head of the Senate foreign Relations Committee, falsely claimed that Iraq under Saddam Hussein – severely weakened by UN disarmament efforts and comprehensive international sanctions – somehow constituted both “a long-term threat and a short-term threat to our national security” and was an “extreme danger to the world.” Despite the absence in Iraq of any “weapons of mass destruction” or offensive military capabilities, Biden – when reminded of those remarks during an interview in 2007 – replied, “That’s right, and I was correct about that.”
In his powerful position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden orchestrated a propaganda show designed to sell the war to skeptical colleagues and the American public by ensuring that dissenting voices would not get a fair hearing. Biden refused to even allow testimony from former UN inspectors like Scott Ritter – who knew more about Iraq’s WMD capabilities than anyone and would have testified that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Ironically, on Meet the Press in 2007, Biden defended his false claims about Iraqi WMDs by falsely insisting that “everyone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them.” Biden also refused to honor requests by some of his Democratic colleagues to include some of the leading anti-war scholars familiar with Iraq and the Middle East in the hearings. These included both those who would have reiterated Ritter’s conclusions about nonexistent Iraqi WMD capabilities as well as those prepared to testify that a US invasion of Iraq would likely set back the struggle against al-Qaeda, alienate the United States from much of the world and precipitate bloody urban counter-insurgency warfare amid rising terrorism, Islamist extremism, and sectarian violence. All of these predictions ended up being exactly what transpired. Nor did Biden even call some of the dissenting officials in the Pentagon or State Department who were willing to challenge the alarmist claims of their ideologically-driven superiors. He was willing, however, to allow Iraqi defectors with highly dubious credentials to make false testimony about the vast quantities of WMD materiel supposedly in Saddam Hussein’s possession. Ritter has correctly accused Biden of having “preordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts and … using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.”
Despite all this, Obama made Biden his pick for vice president.
At least Biden initially tried to alter the wording of the war authorization resolution so as not to give President Bush the blank check he was seeking and to put some limitations on his war-making authority. By contrast, Harry Reid – as assistant majority leader of the Senate – helped circumvent Biden’s efforts by signing on to the White House’s version. As the Democratic “whip,” Reid then persuaded a majority of Democratic Senators to vote down a resolution offered by Democratic Senator Carl Levin that would authorize force only if the UN Security Council voted to give the US that authority and to instead support the White House resolution giving Bush the right to invade even without such legal authorization.
In March 2003, after Iraq allowed United Nations inspectors to return and it was becoming apparent that there were no WMDs to be found, President Bush decided to invade Iraq anyway. Reid rushed to the president’s support, claiming that – despite its clear violation of the United Nations Charter – the invasion was “lawful” and that he “commends and supports the efforts and leadership of the President.”
Despite all this, the Democrats voted to make Reid their leader in the Senate, where he now holds the powerful post of majority leader.
It is also important to recognize that not everyone in Congress voted to authorize the invasion. There were the 21 Senate Democrats – along with one Republican and one Independent – who voted against the war resolution. And 126 of 207 House Democrats voted against the resolution as well. In total, then, a majority of Democrats in Congress defied their leadership by saying no to war. This means that the Democrats who did support the war, despite being over-represented in leadership positions and among future presidential contenders, were part of a right-wing minority and did not represent the mainstream of their party.
The resolution backed by Reid, Biden, Clinton, Kerry and other Democratic Senate leaders also claimed that “the risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States … or provide them to international terrorists who would do so … combine to justify action by the United States to defend itself.” In other words, those who supported this resolution believed, or claimed to believe, that an impoverished country, which had eliminated its stockpiles of banned weapons, destroyed its medium- and long-range missiles and eliminated its WMD programs more than a decade earlier, and had been suffering under the strictest international sanctions in world history for more than a dozen years, somehow threatened the national security of a superpower located more than 6,000 miles away. Furthermore, these members of Congress believed, or claimed to believe, that this supposed threat was so great that the United States had no choice but to launch an invasion of that country, overthrow its government, and place its people under military occupation in the name of “self-defense,” regardless of whether Iraq allowed inspectors back into the county to engage in unfettered inspections to prove that the WMDs, WMD programs and weapons systems no longer existed.
The US invasion of Iraq was opposed by virtually the entire international community, including Iraq’s closest neighbors, who presumably had the most to be concerned about in terms of any possible Iraqi military threat. However, the members of Congress who voted to authorize the invasion were determined to make the case that the United States – with the strongest military the world has ever known and thousands of miles beyond the range of Iraq’s alleged weapons and delivery systems – was so threatened by Iraq that the United States had to launch an invasion, overthrow its government and occupy that country for an indefinite period.
This shows a frighteningly low threshold for effectively declaring war, especially given that in most cases these members of Congress had been informed by knowledgeable sources of the widespread human and material costs that would result from a US invasion. It also indicates that they would likely be just as willing to send American forces off to another disastrous war again, also under false pretenses. Indeed, those who voted for the war demonstrated their belief that:
- The United States need not abide by its international legal obligations, including those prohibiting wars of aggression.
- Claims by right-wing US government officials and unreliable foreign exiles regarding a foreign government’s military capabilities are more trustworthy than independent arms control analysts and United Nations inspectors.
- Concerns expressed by scholars and others knowledgeable of the likely reaction by the subjected population to a foreign conquest and the likely complications that would result should be ignored, and faith should instead be placed on the occupation policies forcibly imposed on the population by a corrupt right-wing Republican administration.
As a result, support for the resolution authorizing the Iraq War is not something that can simply be forgotten. There is no reason to be any more forgiving of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, or Harry Reid than we are of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice.