Voting For Peace In 2008
by David Corn
What's the best way to judge a potential president? It might be to look at the hard decisions a candidate has made in the past. And for several of the probable and possible 2008 contenders, the October 2002 vote in the Senate on the resolution granting George W. Bush the authority to attack Iraq whenever he deemed fit was the most difficult call they had to make. It certainly was the most consequential. All of the current senatorial presidential wannabes who were in office then—Democrats Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Christopher Dodd, Evan Bayh, and Republicans John McCain, Chuck Hagel and Sam Brownback—voted for the bill. So, too, did former Sen. John Edwards. But there were differences in how each approached and explained his or her vote. So let's go back through the dusty pages of the Congressional Record, and see how these legislators handled this tough task—and helped land the United States in the biggest foreign policy blunder of recent decades.
Joseph Biden Jr.
Before the vote, Biden tried to craft a bipartisan alternative to the White House resolution that would have partly restricted Bush's authority. That effort failed. Discussing the final bill on the Senate floor, Biden described Iraq's WMDs as a threat to the United States—but he noted that this threat was not immediate and that Iraq was not in league with al-Qaida. He said:
We have time to deal with that problem in a way that isolates Saddam and does not isolate the United States of America, that makes the use of force the final option, not the first one, that produces the desired results, not unintended consequences.
Biden hailed the decision to ask the UN for a resolution that would demand that Saddam accept new inspections. "Thank God for Colin Powell!" Biden exclaimed. As for what might happen after an invasion, Biden said,
There is a danger that Saddam's downfall could lead to widespread civil unrest and reprisals. I disagree with the President's speech on [October 7]. He said what could be worse than Saddam Hussein? I can tell you, a lot... This is a much more complicated country than Afghanistan.
Biden noted that there would be plenty of challenges in post-invasion Iraq, that meeting them would be tough and costly, and that chaos in Iraq could lead to regional warfare involving Iran and Syria. Bottom line: Biden had a handle on the nature of the threat posed by Iraq and the potential consequences of an invasion.
She bought (and repeated) the White House sales pitch. In a floor speech before the vote, she said, "intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members." Did she read those reports? Few senators of either party bothered to do so. Any who had would have seen that the intelligence was more dubious than the White House was claiming.
She gave Bush the keys to the car—and said nothing about the consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. When Bush decided to use those keys for a military joyride a few months later, despite the fact that inspections were still under way, Clinton did not protest. The bottom line: she adopted the Bush approach.
In his final statement in the Senate debate, he called Saddam's regime "a grave threat to America and our allies." He said that backing the resolution would "strengthen America's hand" and convince Saddam he "has one last chance." Edwards called for a revival of the U.N. inspections process but said "we must be prepared to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction once and for all." He noted, "we have not heard nearly enough from the administration about its plans for assisting the Iraqi people" after an invasion. But he said nothing about what that would entail.
In a Washington Post op-ed three years later, Edwards stated, "I was wrong... It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002." Bottom line: Edwards' argument for war was superficial: Saddam bad, must threaten him by enabling Bush to invade Iraq.
This gentleman from the Hoosier state was a co-sponsor of the Iraq war resolution with Sens. John Warner, Joe Lieberman and McCain. Saddam, Bayh asserted, "presents a very significant potential threat to our country" due to his possession of WMDs and the possibility that he could place these weapons "in the hands of suicidal terrorist for use against the United States of America." Bayh declared, "there is little doubt [Saddam] will reach out to al-Qaida or Hezbollah or other international institutions of terrorism to develop a [WMD] deterrent to threaten us." He was dramatic: "How long must we wait? Until the missiles have been launched? Until smallpox, anthrax or VX nerve agent has found its way into our country?"
Bayh wasn't keen on using the U.N., inspections or diplomacy to deal with the so-called threat. He had no patience for what-ifs regarding the post-invasion period: "What will we do after our victory? I say that is a good question, but can the regime in Iraq be worse? I think not." Bottom line: As hawkish as Joe Lieberman.
In his major statement during the Senate debate, Kerry, like most other senators, accepted the bad intelligence without scrutinizing it. "Why is [Saddam] seeking to develop unmanned airborne vehicles for delivery of biological agents?" he asked. (Saddam wasn't.) He added: I believe the record of Saddam Hussein's ruthless, reckless breach of international values and standards of behavior ... is cause enough for the world community to hold him accountable by use of force, if necessary.
Looking ahead, Kerry foresaw a "great" challenge should the United States invade Iraq: But Kerry did not dwell on this point. Now he wants not to stay the course but to withdraw all troops within six to eight months. Bottom line: Kerry accepted—or hid behind—the conventional wisdom about Saddam's WMDs, avoided voting against a future war that could turn out to be popular, while raising appropriate questions about Bush's intentions and plans.
The Connecticut liberal proclaimed Saddam was "a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction." He explained that he was voting for the resolution "in the fervent hope that this show of unity in authorizing the president to use force will reduce the likelihood that force will ultimately be necessary." But Dodd tried to qualify his stance: "How imminent that threat is, unfortunately, has been extremely difficult to assess. This is because of a troubling new trend by the intelligence agencies to not just give us information and objective analysis but, in my opinion, too often to insert themselves into policymaking."
He expressed concerns that Bush would invade Iraq without sufficient international support and that a war in Iraq would distract from the war on terrorism. Bottom line: Dodd didn't trust CIA director George Tenet and the agency's claims about Iraq's WMDs; he doubted Bush would use the authority well, yet handed it to him anyway.
During the Senate debate, McCain echoed Bush in declaring Saddam a "grave and gathering danger, a clear threat to American security." He claimed that Saddam "has developed stocks of germs and toxins in sufficient quantities to kill the entire population of the Earth multiple times" and that Iraq was on a "crash course to construct a nuclear weapon." And he led the effort to beat back an amendment that would push Bush to focus on disarming Saddam rather than regime change.
As for what would follow such a war, McCain was positive Iraqis would embrace the liberators from America: "Our regional allies who oppose using force against Saddam Hussein warn of uncontrollable popular hostility to an American attack on Iraq... [T]he people of that tortured society will surely dance on the regime's grave." Bottom line: Wrong on the nature of the threat and wrong on what would follow the invasion—and yearning for a good war to prove American exceptionalism and nobility.
"America—including the Congress—and the world, must speak with one voice about Iraqi disarmament, as it must continue to do so in the war on terrorism," Hagel said in explaining his vote. But he was prescient: "If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism and a bit more humility."
He cautioned humility: "I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world." Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn't have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.
The social conservative from Kansas raised the prospect of Saddam firing missiles with biological and chemical weapons "at us." He claimed that "al-Qaida leadership is in Iraq" and that Saddam was "the nexus ... between the weapons of mass destruction and terrorists." The problem, Brownback explained, was that the thinking of Americans about national security was influenced by Westerns like the old television show "Gunsmoke."
His point: In the post-9/11 world, Matt Dillon-style rules don't apply. Sometimes the sheriff has to draw first. And in the case of Iraq, Brownback said, the bad guy would be replaced by a good guy: They will embrace and encourage and move forward with democracy on a rapid basis... And that will spread throughout that region... [I]t is going to be a flower that will bloom there in the desert." Bottom line: Shoot first, get over it and a garden of democracy will bloom.
But only Biden and Hagel, though they voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, showed they fully grasped what a war could bring. The frontrunners—Clinton and McCain—displayed no insight or imagination during the debate on the Iraq war.
Read David Corn's Op Ed, "Voting For Peace In 2008" in its entirety, on TomPaine.com here. Read the Biden-Gelb Plan For Iraq here.
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