The ongoing presence of over 50,000 US troops, many thousands of civilian employees and tens of thousands of US-backed mercenaries raises serious questions over the significance of the partial withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The August 31 deadline marking the “end of US combat operations in Iraq” is not as real or significant a milestone as President Obama implied in his speech. Indeed, hearing for the umpteenth time that the US has “turned a corner” in Iraq, it makes one think that the country must be some kind of dodecahedron.
Nevertheless, with all the attention on the supposed withdrawal of US combat forces, it is important to acknowledge the forces that got us into this tragic conflict in the first place.
It was not just George W. Bush.
Had a majority of either the Republican-controlled House or the Democratic-controlled Senate voted against the resolution authorizing the invasion or had they passed an alternative resolution conditioning such authority on the approval of the use of force from the United Nations Security Council, all the tragic events that have unfolded as a consequence of the March 2003 invasion would have never taken place.
The responsibility for the deaths of over 4,400 American soldiers, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the waste of nearly one trillion dollars of our national treasury and the rise of terrorism and Islamist extremism that has come as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq rests as much in the hands of the members in Congress who authorized the invasion as it does with the administration that requested the lawmakers’ approval. Indeed, the October 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion had the support of the majority of Democratic senators, as well as the support of the Democratic Party leadership in both the House and the Senate.
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, “The Case Against a War with Iraq“). The 2002 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. In contrast, with 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 for an indefinite period.
Violating International Legal Covenants
Those who voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq did so despite the fact that it violated international legal conventions to 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 nonmilitary 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-WW II 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.
Concerned Scholars and Strategic Analysts
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 have been at all surprised that the US invasion became 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, claims by 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 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.
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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. As I have written elsewhere, academic journals, testimony by arms control inspectors, newspaper articles, reports from independent think tanks and countless other sources in the months leading up to the Congressional authorization vote provided a plethora of evidence suggesting that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament and was not a threat to its neighbors, much less the United States.
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 material that had not been accounted for – which, as it ends up, had also been destroyed – had long since expired and was therefore no longer of weapons grade. There was no evidence that Iraq had any delivery systems for such weapons, either. In addition, the strict embargo of that country, in effect since 1990, against imports of any additional materials needed for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), 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” as claimed in the resolution 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 WMD, 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, except for one excerpt from a 2002 National Security Estimate released in July 2003 – widely ridiculed at the time for its transparently manipulated content – not a single member of Congress has agreed to allow me or any other strategic analyst any access to any documents they claim convinced them of the alleged Iraqi threat. In effect, they are using the infamous Nixon defense from the Watergate scandal, claiming 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, outdated and are in regard to a government no longer in existence and would, therefore, be of no threat to national security if made public.
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 which 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 2002 Iraq war resolution is not something that can simply be forgiven and forgotten.
The Democrats who voted to support the war and rationalized for it by making false claims about Iraq’s WMD programs are responsible for allowing the Bush administration to get away with lying about Iraq’s alleged threat. For example, Bush correctly noted 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 speech attacking anti-war activists, Bush noted, “Many of these critics supported my opponent [Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry] 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.'”
The resolution 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 members of the House and Senate 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 WMD, WMD programs and weapons systems no longer existed.
It’s 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 overrepresented in leadership positions and among presidential contenders, were part of a right-wing minority and did not represent the mainstream of their party.
Despite this, the Democratic Party has largely rewarded their right-wing minority who did support the war. Since casting their fateful vote and making their false statements about WMD, Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was elected senate majority leader, John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) has been selected to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) has been selected to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee. In the House, Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) was elected House Majority leader and Howard Berman (D-California) was selected to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And, in 2004, after the lies which led up to the war had already been exposed and US occupation troops were being dragged down into a bloody counterinsurgency war, the Democrats chose to nominate two pro-war senators – Kerry and John Edwards (D-North Carolina) – as their presidential and vice presidential candidates, both of whom at that time continued to defend their vote to authorize the invasion and to continue prosecuting the war. As a result, many anti-war Democrats refused to support their party’s nominees, resulting in their narrow defeat.
The Obama Administration
To his credit, Barack Obama – then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way – took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago in October 2002. While his future rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and US national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”
Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the United States to “allow UN inspectors to do their work.” He noted, “that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”
Furthermore, unlike the Iraq war’s initial supporters, Obama recognized that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Understanding the dangerous consequences to regional stability resulting from war, Obama accurately warned that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
Indeed, he referred to it as “a dumb war” and “a rash war,” nothing less than a “cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.”
It was this prescience, contrasted with Hillary Clinton’s blind support for the Iraq war, that played a decisive role in Obama upsetting her for the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination. Indeed, as a candidate for president, Obama promised that not only would he end the Iraq war, he would “end the mindset that led to the Iraq war.”
Unfortunately, the majority of President Obama’s appointees to key positions dealing with foreign policy – Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Rahm Emanuel – have been among those who represent that very mindset.
Their support for the invasion of Iraq was not simply a matter of misjudgment. Those who supported the war demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law and disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties which prohibit aggressive war. They demonstrated a willingness to either fabricate a nonexistent threat or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such a threat existed, ignoring a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Perhaps worst of all, they demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and stupidity in imagining that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.
Nor does it appear that they were simply fooled by the Bush administration’s manufactured claims of an Iraqi threat. For example, Napolitano, after acknowledging that there were not really WMD in Iraq as she had claimed prior to the invasion, argued, “In my view, there were lots of reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein.” Similarly, Clinton insisted months after the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of WMD that her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion “was the right vote” and was one that, she said, “I stand by.”
Clearly, then, despite their much-touted “experience,” these Obama appointees demonstrated, through their support for the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of massive US military force.
Given that the majority of Democrats in Congress, a larger majority of registered Democrats nationally and an even larger percentage of those who voted for Obama opposed the decision to invade Iraq, it is particularly disappointing that Obama would choose his vice president, chief of staff, secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of Homeland Security and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan from the right-wing minority who supported the war.
The most striking examples of Obama’s betrayal of his anti-war constituency have been his appointments to the influential positions of vice president and secretary of state.
It is difficult to overestimate the critical role Biden played in making the tragedy of the Iraq war possible. More than two months prior to the 2002 war resolution even being introduced, in what was widely interpreted as the first sign that Congress would endorse a US invasion of Iraq, Biden declared on August 4 that the United States was probably going to war. In his powerful position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he orchestrated a propaganda show designed to sell the war to skeptical colleagues and the America public by ensuring that dissenting voices would not get a fair hearing.
As Scott Ritter, the former chief UN weapons inspector, noted at the time, “For Sen. Biden’s Iraq hearings to be anything more than a political sham used to invoke a modern-day Gulf of Tonkin resolution-equivalent for Iraq, his committee will need to ask hard questions – and demand hard facts – concerning the real nature of the weapons threat posed by Iraq.”
It soon became apparent that Biden had no intention of doing so. Biden refused to even allow Ritter himself – who knew more about Iraq’s WMD capabilities than anyone and would have testified that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament – to testify. Ironically, on “Meet the Press” in 2007, Biden defended his false claims about Iraqi WMD by 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 Middle East (myself included) in the hearings. These involved 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, counterinsurgency 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 of highly dubious credentials to make false testimony about the vast quantities of WMD materiel supposedly in Saddam Hussein’s possession. Ritter 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.”
Rather than being a hapless victim of the Bush administration’s lies and manipulation, Biden was calling for a US invasion of Iraq and making false statements regarding Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of WMD years before President George W. Bush even came to office.
As far back as 1998, Biden was calling for a US invasion of that oil rich country. Even though UN inspectors and the UN-led disarmament process had led to the elimination of Iraq’s WMD threat, Biden – in an effort to discredit the world body and make an excuse for war – insisted that UN inspectors could never be trusted to do the job. During Senate hearings on Iraq in September of that year, Biden told Ritter, “As long as Saddam’s at the helm, there is no reasonable prospect you or any other inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out, root and branch, the entirety of Saddam’s program relative to weapons of mass destruction.”
Calling for military action on the scale of the Gulf War seven years earlier, he continued, “The only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is we’re going to end up having to start it alone.” He told the Marine veteran, “it’s going to require guys like you in uniform to be back on foot in the desert taking Saddam down.”
When Ritter tried to make the case that President Bill Clinton’s proposed large-scale bombing of Iraq could jeopardize the UN inspections process, Biden condescendingly replied that decisions on the use of military force were “beyond your pay grade.” As Ritter predicted, when Clinton ordered UN inspectors out of Iraq in December of that year and followed up with a four-day bombing campaign known as Operation Desert Fox, Saddam was provided with an excuse to refuse to allow the inspectors to return. Biden then conveniently used Saddam’s failure to allow them to return as an excuse for going to war four years later.
In the face of widespread skepticism over administration claims regarding Iraq’s military capabilities, Biden declared that President Bush was justified in being concerned about Iraq’s alleged pursuit of WMD. Even though Iraq had eliminated its chemical weapons arsenal by the mid-1990s, Biden insisted categorically in the weeks leading up to the Iraq war resolution that Saddam Hussein still had chemical weapons. Even though there is no evidence that Iraq had ever developed deployable biological weapons and its biological weapons program had been eliminated some years earlier, Biden insisted that Saddam had biological weapons, including anthrax and that “he may have a strain” of small pox. And, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported as far back as 1998 that there was no evidence whatsoever that Iraq had any ongoing nuclear program, Biden insisted Saddam was “seeking nuclear weapons.”
Said Biden, “One thing is clear: These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam, or Saddam must be dislodged from power.” He did not believe proof of the existence of any actual weapons to dislodge was necessary, however, insisting that “If we wait for the danger from Saddam to become clear, it could be too late.” He further defended President Bush by falsely claiming, “He did not snub the U.N. or our allies. He did not dismiss a new inspection regime. He did not ignore the Congress. At each pivotal moment, he has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation.”
In an Orwellian twist of language designed to justify the war resolution, which gave President Bush the unprecedented authority to invade a country on the far side of the world at the time and circumstances of his own choosing, Biden claimed, “I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security. I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur.”
It is also important to note that Biden supported an invasion in the full knowledge that it would not be quick and easy and that the United States would have to occupy Iraq for an extended period, declaring, “We must be clear with the American people that we are committing to Iraq for the long haul; not just the day after, but the decade after.”
Despite all this, Obama offered him the vice presidency and has given him a leading role in his administration’s foreign policy.
The most critical foreign policy appointment is that of secretary of state. For this position and despite enormous skepticism regarding the war among most State Department veterans, President Obama chose Clinton, one of the Senate’s most outspoken supporters of Bush’s Iraq policy. In order to justify her vote to authorize the US invasion of Iraq in October 2002, despite widespread and public skepticism expressed by arms control experts over the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had somehow rearmed itself, Senator Clinton was insisting that Iraq’s possession of biological and chemical weapons was “not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” She also falsely claimed that Iraq was “trying to develop nuclear weapons.”
Nonexistent WMD were not the only false claims Clinton made to justify a US invasion of Iraq. For example, she insisted that Saddam had given aid, comfort and sanctuary to al-Qaeda terrorists
Even after US forces invaded and occupied Iraq and confirmed that Iraq did not have WMD, active WMD programs, offensive delivery systems or ties to al-Qaeda as she and other supporters of the war had claimed, Clinton defended her vote to authorize the invasion anyway. As a result, she essentially acknowledged that Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD was not really what motivated her vote to authorize the war after all, but was instead a ruse to frighten the American people into supporting the invasion. Her actual motivation appears to have been about oil and empire.
During the first four years following the invasion, Clinton was a steadfast supporter of Bush administration policy. When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) made his first call for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in November 2005, she denounced his effort, calling a withdrawal of US forces a big mistake. In 2006, when Senator Kerry sponsored an amendment that would have required the redeployment of US forces from Iraq in order to advance a political solution to the growing sectarian strife, she voted against it. She came out against the war only when she began her presidential campaign, recognizing that public opinion had turned so decisively in opposition that there was no hope of her securing the Democratic nomination unless she changed her position.
She has also decried Iran’s “involvement in and influence over Iraq,” an ironic complaint for someone who voted to authorize the overthrow of the anti-Iranian secular government of Saddam Hussein despite his widely predicted replacement by pro-Iranian Shiite fundamentalist parties. She also went on record repeating a whole series of false, exaggerated and unproven charges by Bush administration officials regarding Iranian support for the Iraqi insurgency, even though the vast majority of foreign support for the insurgency had come from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and that the majority of the insurgents are fanatically anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite.
Where’s the Hope?
A foreign policy team like this in charge raises serious questions as to whether Obama – despite his admirable anti-war position during the period leading up to the invasion – can really get us out of Iraq. His August 31 speech failed to condemn the decision to go to war or the politicians of both parties who lied about the alleged Iraqi threat.
Nor is it likely that the US Congress, the leadership of which is largely composed of pro-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans, will provide pressure to accelerate the withdrawal or demand that all troops be out by next year as promised. The way the Democratic Party has essentially rewarded those who made possible the needless sacrifice of American lives, treasure and credibility in the world leaves little incentive for those like Clinton, Biden, Kerry, Reid, Feinstein, Berman and Hoyer to get us out of Iraq and little disincentive for leading us into another senseless and tragic war.
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