Joe Biden’s support for the Iraq War and the key role he played as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in getting the war authorization through the Democratic-controlled Senate not only has made him unpopular within the party’s progressive wing, but has also raised serious questions regarding his electability. Biden’s decision to limit hearings prior to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to just a day and half, stack the witness list with war supporters and block testimony by prominent war opponents; his false statements about Iraq’s military capabilities; and his defense of the invasion long after inspectors returned after finding none of the proscribed weapons — as well as his recent denials — raise disturbing questions across the ideological spectrum as to how he would conduct foreign policy as president.
Should Biden get the presidential nomination, it could cost the Democrats the White House.
What happened to Hillary Clinton four years ago could be a harbinger of what could happen to Biden this fall. Despite distancing herself from her earlier pro-war position, Clinton’s support for the war authorization not only led to her surprise defeat in the 2008 Democratic primaries to Barack Obama, who repeatedly challenged her judgement in supporting President George W. Bush’s policies, it cost her the 2016 general election as well.
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Throughout 2016, Donald Trump was able to attack Clinton from the left over her support for the Iraq War, the Libyan intervention and other unpopular projections of U.S. military force. Despite having actually supported the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya himself, Trump was largely successful in depicting himself as having opposed these controversial actions and in portraying Clinton as a reckless militarist who, as president, would waste American lives and resources on unnecessary, tragic and seemingly endless overseas entanglements.
Recognizing that more traditional Republican hawks would not support a Democratic candidate regardless, Trump was able to take advantage of the growing isolationist and anti-interventionist sentiments among conservatives, libertarians and centrists to consolidate his base. In addition, he was also able to reinforce the unease among progressive Democratic-leaning voters over Clinton’s pro-interventionist positions, thereby suppressing turnout and encouraging third-party support in some key swing states that made the difference in his Electoral College victory.
Trump’s critique of Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy resonated with millions of Americans, many of whom naively believed he would be less inclined to embroil the country in such wars. White working-class communities in states such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania — which had suffered greatly from sending their children off to fight in these wars and saw their communities and public infrastructure suffer in order to pay for it — tilted the balance in those states, which had gone to the anti-Iraq war Obama when he was the Democratic nominee. 2016 turnout among Black and millennial voters, who had also been hurt disproportionately by the Iraq War and subsequent interventions in terms of being sent to fight and cutbacks in domestic programs to pay for it, was much lower than when Obama headed the Democratic ticket. And support for the antiwar Green and Libertarian parties — which more than made up for Trump’s margin of victory in those states — was much higher than in the previous election cycles.
An analysis of voting data demonstrates that areas of the country which experienced the largest amount of casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also experienced the most dramatic shift from Democrat to Republican between the 2008 and 2012 elections and the 2016 election, when the Democrats nominated a supporter of the Iraq War after twice nominating a war opponent. The analysis concluded:
Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.
Trump was able to take advantage of these communities’ losses and anger at the politicians who sent their young people to die in unpopular overseas wars by contrasting himself with both Clinton and his Republican rivals, saying, “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”
Trump scored surprisingly well, challenging both the neoconservatives and more traditional hawks among his Republican rivals, and later against Clinton through his “America First” rhetoric and criticisms of costly and seemingly never-ending overseas wars, particularly the decision to invade Iraq.
Claiming “our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction,” he attacked Clinton for her “reckless” foreign policy, which he claimed “has blazed the path of destruction in its wake. After losing thousands of lives and spending trillions of dollars, we are in far worst shape in the Middle East than ever, ever before.” Trump gained support from voters across the political spectrum in his major foreign policy speech in June 2016, in which — despite having actually supported the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya — he portrayed himself as reluctant to use force and Clinton as a dangerous interventionist:
It all started with her bad judgment in supporting the war in Iraq in the first place. Though I was not in government service, I was among the earliest to criticize the rush to war. And yes, even before the war ever started. But Hillary Clinton learned nothing from Iraq. Because when she got into power, she couldn’t wait to rush us off to war in Libya. She lacks the temperament and the judgment and the competence to lead our country. She should not be president under any circumstances.
In another speech, he asserted that, “Sometimes it seemed like there wasn’t a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to invade, intervene in, or topple,” accusing her of being “trigger-happy” and “reckless,” and noting that Clinton’s legacy in Iraq, Libya and Syria “has produced only turmoil and suffering and death.” Critiquing Clinton’s distorted economic priorities, he observed,
The price of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will total approximately $6 trillion. We could have rebuilt our country over and over and over again. Yet, after all this money was spent and lives lost, Clinton’s policies as secretary of state have left the Middle East in more disarray than ever before, not even close. Had we done nothing, we would have been in a far better position.
Trump will be able to use this exact same line of argument against Biden, should he become the Democratic nominee.
Shifts in the Electorate
Just as the Clinton and Biden-wing of the Democratic Party has been slow to recognize how far to the left-leaning, younger Democratic voters had moved on economic and other domestic issues in recent years, they underestimate the depth of millennials’ opposition to overseas wars. Their generation has been profoundly impacted by the U.S. invasion, occupation and counter-insurgency war in Iraq. Many of them had older siblings and friends who served in Iraq and suffered physically and mentally from their service, and recognized how the war had destabilized the region, led to a dramatic increase in terrorism, harmed the U.S.’s reputation and drained the federal budget. They resent Clinton’s and now Biden’s insistence that Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free public higher education, and other programs advocated by Bernie Sanders were too expensive while they were nevertheless willing to support the trillions spent on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as other dramatic increases in military spending.
Particularly among working-class millennials, who either reluctantly enlisted themselves or had friends who had done so in order to get support for university tuition, there is a strong sense that Clinton’s and Biden’s priorities were seriously misplaced and that they were more interested in sending young people fight to wars overseas than enabling them to receive a good education. Indeed, one of the reasons that millennials so overwhelming have supported Sanders over Clinton in 2016 and Biden in the 2020 Democratic primaries was that Sanders had recognized the Iraq War was illegal and unnecessary, while Clinton and Biden had insisted that a weak and isolated nation somehow constituted a threat to U.S. national security, and that the United States has the right to illegally invade and occupy other countries regardless of its human and material costs.
Young people are the least consistent voters in terms of turnout. With a pro-interventionist Biden at the head of the ticket, he — like Clinton — will likely suppress the mostly-progressive youth turnout and hurt Democratic chances for the White House and other races as well.
In the eyes of some leftist and libertarian critics, the fact that Biden and Clinton continued to defend their vote authorizing the invasion despite the absence of any discernible threats to U.S. national security led to accusations that they — like the Bush administration — deliberately manipulated Americans’ post-9/11 fears by making false accusations of an Iraqi threat in order to pursue and neoconservative agenda for oil and empire, particularly in light of Biden’s call to invade Iraq prior to the 2001 terrorist attack.
Will History Repeat Itself?
This is not the first time that the Democratic Party’s choice of hawkish nominees in a time of growing antiwar sentiment has led them to lose close elections they otherwise would have won. The classic case is 1968, when the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War, led many antiwar partisans of defeated challenger Eugene McCarthy to refuse to support him. The result was the very narrow victory of the relatively unpopular Richard Nixon.
In 2004, as it was becoming increasing apparent that the invasion of Iraq the previous year was turning into a long, bloody, counter-insurgency campaign, the Democrats nominated pro-Iraq War senator John Kerry. As a supporter of the war resolution, he was unable to challenge George W. Bush on the illegal, unnecessary and predictably disastrous decision to invade that oil-rich county. As a result, Kerry could only focus on how Bush was mismanaging the conflict and how he would have handled the invasion and occupation better. Instead of being a clear-cut contest between a pro-war and antiwar candidate at a time of an increasingly unpopular overseas conflict, it became a choice between the decisive Republican commander-in-chief and the allegedly “flip-flopping” Democratic challenger. As a result, not only was Kerry unable to win over many pro-war swing voters, he alienated a large segment of antiwar voters, thereby losing a very close election an antiwar candidate would have almost certainly have won.
Will the Democrats indeed suffer a similar fate in 2020?
Already, Trump supporters are going after Biden for his support for the war. A viral video of an Iraq veteran confronting Biden, shouting “Blood it on your hands!” and “Trump is more anti-war than you are!” is being circulated by Fox News and other Trump supporters. And Biden’s recent bizarre claim that he voted for the Iraq War to prevent it adds little to his credibility in response, particularly in light of his continued defense of the war despite the return of inspectors and the absence of the weapons, weapons systems, and weapons programs he insisted Iraq still possessed.
The best way to avoid another Democratic defeat as a result of their support for a Republican war would be if Bernie Sanders or someone else from the party’s anti-Iraq War majority wins the nomination.
If that doesn’t happen, Biden needs to put in a concerted effort to convince skeptical Democratic and independent voters that, despite his role in getting the Senate to approve Bush’s request to invade a foreign country under false pretenses, he would never ask Congress to give him the same authority. He would need to stop making false statements that he actually opposed the war and issue a frank apology. This would require making a convincing argument that he is a changed man, both in terms of his view of international legal conventions prohibiting such wars or aggression, but also from his attitude that such invasions would somehow bring peace and stability to conquered lands and would enhance U.S. national security.
He would also need to choose a running mate with solid antiwar credentials. He would need to support a Democratic Party platform with strong anti-interventionist language. He would need to call for a dramatic reduction in military spending. He would need to call for the withdrawal of all combat troops from the Middle East. He would need to promise to withhold military and arms transfers to countries in the region that have used such weapons in violations of international humanitarian law, which would include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Israel and Egypt, among others.
Failure to do this could lead to a repeat of 2016. And 2004. And 1968.