Voting For Peace In 2008
December 06, 2006
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author, along with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
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. (Sen. Barack Obama, who opposed the war, was not yet in the Senate.) 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..
Hillary Clinton. 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.
Having accepted the claim that Iraq was a WMD threat, Clinton tried to craft an in-the-middle position. She said she was opposed to an immediate unilateral attack on Iraq. But she also opposed asking the U.N. to approve military action against Iraq. Instead, she advocated seeking a U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq cooperate with inspections. If Iraq did not, she said, the United States would have the necessary authority—due to an earlier U.N. resolution—to attack on its own. “A vote for [the resolution],” she declared, “is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our president and we say to him, 'Use these powers wisely and as a last resort.'” Still, 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.
John Edwards. In his final statement in the Senate debate, he called Saddam's regime “a grave threat to America and our allies.” He claimed “almost no one disagrees” with the “basic” fact that Saddam has “weapons of mass destruction.” 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. I take responsibility for that mistake.” Bottom line: Edwards' argument for war was superficial: Saddam bad, must threaten him by enabling Bush to invade Iraq. But unlike most of his Senate colleagues from that time, he has confessed he screwed up.
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:
And he claimed Bush believed this, too: “That is the course President Bush has chosen.” Biden hailed Bush's recent decision to ask the U.N. 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,
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; he failed to suss out that Bush was committed to war.
Evan Bayh. This gentleman from the Hoosier state was a co-sponsor of the Iraq war resolution with Sens. John Warner, Joe Lieberman and McCain. He took a nuance-free view. 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? ... The deaths next time might not be numbered in the threes of thousands but 30,000 or 300,000.” He dismissed non-military options. 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.
John Kerry. 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:
At the same time he questioned Bush's credibility, noting that Bush had initially made it seem that he was more interested in regime change than disarming Iraq. But Kerry said that since the Bush administration had shifted its aims and was willing to press for new inspections, he would support the resolution as a means to pressure Saddam into accepting the inspections. But Kerry tried to lay down a marker:
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. He created an internally consistent mishmash that would be hard to sell to voters in 2004.
Christopher Dodd. 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.
John McCain. 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.” (Not even the overstated and flawed intelligence used such hair-raising terms.) He noted he was “deeply skeptical” of inspections. And he led the effort to beat back an amendment that would push Bush to focus on disarming Saddam rather than regime change. In his final speech, McCain reached for eloquence and tried to portray a war against Iraq as a sign and obligation of American greatness. The vote on the president's resolution, he said, “will answer the fundamental question about America's purpose in the world.” He laid it on thick: The vote, he said:
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… [I]t's a safe assumption that Iraqis will be grateful to whoever is responsible for securing their freedom.” McCain said nothing about the potential problems ahead. He did say, “By voting to give the president the authority to wage war, we assume and share his responsibility for the war's outcome.” 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.
Chuck Hagel. Of all the senators eyeing the White House in 2008, this Nebraskan was the only one to express deep reservations about the resolution—while still voting for it. “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. The future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is also an open question. Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world. 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 added, “Imposing democracy through force in Iraq is a roll of the dice. A democratic effort cannot be maintained without building durable Iraqi political institutions and developing a regional and international commitment to Iraq's reconstruction. No small task.”
Hagel was disappointed in the discourse within the Senate: “We should spend more time debating the cost and extent of this commitment, the risks we may face in military engagement with Iraq, the implications of the precedent of United States military action for regime change and the likely character and challenges of a post-Saddam Iraq. We have heard precious little from the President, his team, as well as from this Congress, with a few notable exceptions, about these most difficult and critical questions.” And 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.
Sam Brownback.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: Iraq has “an educated urban population. 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.
So who fares best in this review? Not one of these presidential aspirants got Iraq right. Despite Bush's various assertions, Saddam was no WMD threat; he was not in cahoots with al-Qaida. War on those grounds was unnecessary. 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. Neither are yet strong contenders within their respective parties. The frontrunners—Clinton and McCain—displayed no insight or imagination during the debate on the Iraq war. Clinton was blinded by caution, McCain by visions of American grandeur. So far, neither has had to pay for their mistakes, and neither has admitted bungling the call. Their political prospects have flourished. Yet what a pity it will be if American voters end up with presidential nominees who demonstrated no foresight or wisdom about the most pressing issue now facing the nation.