Now that some Democrats are finally speaking out against the administration's phony claims about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," conservative talk show hosts, columnists and bloggers have been dredging up scores of pre-invasion quotes by Democratic leaders citing non-existent Iraqi WMDs.
These defenders of the administration keep asking the question, "If President Bush lied, does that mean that the Democrats lied too?" The answer, unfortunately, is a qualified "yes." Based on my conversations with Democratic members of Congress and their staffs in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion, there is reason to believe that at least some in the leadership of the Democratic Party is also guilty of having misled the American public regarding the supposed threat emanating from Iraq. At minimum, it could be considered criminal negligence.
As a result, though the Republicans have undoubtedly been hurt by their false statements on the subject, the Democrats are not likely to reap much benefit.
It did not have to be that way. Indeed, given the number of academics, former arms inspectors, strategic analysts, and others (me included) who had warned these Capitol Hill Democrats well prior to the October 2002 vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq that the Bush administration's WMD claims were not to be taken seriously, they have no one to blame but themselves. As a result of the Democrats choosing to disingenuously repeat these false claims of a supposed Iraqi threat in order to justify their vote to give President George W. Bush unprecedented war powers, Republicans are now able to portray the administration's lies simply as honest mistakes.
It is certainly true that the Bush administration pressured members of the intelligence community to come up with data that would support their claims that Iraq was somehow a military threat to the United States and that they presented highly-selective and exaggerated "evidence" to Democratic lawmakers. It is also true that Republicans in Congress have blocked demands by some Democrats that a serious investigation be undertaken regarding the manipulation of intelligence regarding Iraq's military capability.
However, there was enough counter-evidence published in reputable journals, United Nations reports, policy briefs from independent think tanks, and even from within the State Department and CIA that should have made it possible for the Democrats to have seen through the Bush administration's lies if they wanted to. And there is some evidence to suggest that they didn't want to: for example, Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate International Relations Committee, teamed up with his Republican counterparts to prevent those challenging Bush administration WMD claims prior to the invasion from testifying.
It should also be remembered that it was the Clinton administration, not the current administration, which first insisted-despite the lack of evidence-that Iraq had successfully concealed or re-launched its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Clinton's fear-mongering around Iraqi WMDs began in 1997, several years after they had been successfully destroyed or rendered inoperable. Based upon the alleged Iraqi threat, Clinton ordered a massive four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998, forcing the evacuation of inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA.) As many of us had warned just prior to the bombing, this gave Saddam Hussein the opportunity to refuse to allow the inspectors to return. It also provided a "lesson" that unilateral military action, not nonviolent law-based processes through inter-governmental organizations, was the means to respond to the threat of WMD proliferation.
Clinton was egged on to take such unilateral military action by leading Senate Democratic leaders -- including then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, John Kerry, Carl Levin, and others who signed a letter in October 1998 -- urging the president "to take necessary actions, including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspected Iraqi sites, to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs." Meanwhile, Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was repeatedly making false statements regarding Iraq's supposed possession of WMDs, even justifying the enormous humanitarian toll from the U.S.-led economic sanctions on Iraq on the grounds that "Saddam Hussein has . . . chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass destruction."
Congressional Democrats continued their efforts to scare the American people into believing the Iraq was a threat to U.S. national security after President Bush came to office. Connecticut senator Joseph Leiberman sent a letter to President Bush in December 2001 declaring that "There is no doubt that ... Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated his weapons programs" and that Iraq's "biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf War status." Eight months later, in order to frighten the American people into supporting a U.S. takeover of that oil-rich land, the 2000 Democratic Party vice-presidential nominee even claimed "Every day Saddam remains in power with chemical weapons, biological weapons, and the development of nuclear weapons is a day of danger for the United States."
Even after the International Atomic Energy Agency declared, after more than one thousand unannounced inspections throughout Iraq during the 1990s, that Iraq no longer had a nuclear program and despite the 2001 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that confirmed there was no evidence that such work had resumed, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller declared "There is unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein is working aggressively to develop nuclear weapons." President Bush has since used the irresponsible rhetoric of the junior senator from West Virginia -- now the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee -- to discredit Congressional opponents of the war, citing this quote in his recent speech at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.
During the fall of 2002, in an effort to counter the efforts of those of us questioning the Bush administration's WMD claims, congressional Democrats redoubled their efforts to depict Saddam Hussein as a threat to America's national security. Democrats controlled the Senate at that point and could have blocked President Bush's request for the authority to invade Iraq. However, in October, the majority of Democratic senators, led by Majority Leader Daschle and assistant Majority leader Harry Reid, voted to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing on the grounds that Iraq "poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States … by … among other things, continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, [and] actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability."
In a Senate speech defending his vote to authorize Bush to launch an invasion, Senator Kerry categorically declared, despite the lack of any credible evidence, that "Iraq has chemical and biological weapons" and even alleged that most elements of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programs were "larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War." Furthermore, Kerry asserted that Iraq was "attempting to develop nuclear weapons," backing up this accusation by falsely claiming that "all U.S. intelligence experts agree" with that assessment. The Massachusetts junior senator also alleged that "Iraq is developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents [that] could threaten Iraq's neighbors as well as American forces in the Persian Gulf." Though it soon became evident that none of Kerry's allegations were true, the Democratic Party still decided to reward him in 2004 with its nomination for president.
Kerry supporters claim he was not being dishonest in making these false claims but that he had been fooled by "bad intelligence" passed on by the Bush administration. However, well before Kerry's vote to authorize the invasion, former UN inspector Scott Ritter personally told the senator and his senior staff that claims about Iraq still having WMDs or WMD programs were not based on valid intelligence. According to Ritter, "Kerry knew that there was a verifiable case to be made to debunk the president's statements regarding the threat posed by Iraq's WMDs, but he chose not to act on it."
Joining Kerry in voting to authorize the invasion was North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who-in the face of growing public skepticism of the Bush administration's WMD claims-rushed to the president's defense in an op-ed article published in the Washington Post. In his commentary, Edwards claimed that Iraq was "a grave and growing threat" and that Congress should therefore "endorse the use of all necessary means to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." The Bush administration was so impressed with Edwards' arguments that they posted the article on the State Department website. Again, despite the fact that Edwards' claims were completely groundless, the Democratic Party rewarded him less than two years later with its nomination for vice president.
By 2004, it was recognized that the administration's WMD claims were bogus and the war was not going well. The incumbent president and vice president, who had misled the nation into a disastrous war through phony claims of an Iraqi military threat, were therefore quite vulnerable to losing the November election. But instead of nominating candidates who opposed the war and challenged these false WMD claims, the Democrats chose two men who had also misled the nation into war by frightening the American public into believing that a war-ravaged Third World country on the far side of the planet threatened our nation's security and advocated continued prosecution of the bloody counter-insurgency campaign resulting from the U.S. invasion and occupation. Though enormous sums of money and volunteer hours which could have gone into anti-war organizing instead went into the campaigns of these pro-invasion senators, many anti-war activists refused on principle to support them. Not surprisingly, the Democrats lost.
Kerry's failure to tell the truth continues to hurt the anti-war movement, as President Bush to this day quotes Kerry's false statements about Iraq's pre-invasion military capability as a means of covering up for the lies of his administration. For example, in his recent Veteran's Day speech in Pennsylvania in which he attacked the anti-war movement, President Bush was able to say, "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'."
Despite the consequences of putting forth nominees who failed to tell the truth about Iraq's WMD capabilities, current polls show that New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also made false claims about the alleged Iraqi threat, is the front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2008. In defending her vote authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, Ms. Clinton claimed that "if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons."
In his Veteran's Day speech, Bush was able to deny any wrongdoing by his administration by noting how "more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senatewho had access to the same intelligencevoted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power." If the Democrats had instead decided to be honest and take a critical look at the phony intelligence being put forward by the administration, they would have said what so many of us were saying at the time: it was highly unlikely that Iraq still had such weapons. Instead, by also making false claims about Iraqi WMD capability, it not only resulted in their failure to re-take the House and Senate in the 2004 elections, but they have effectively shielded the Bush administration from the consequences of its actions.
Even some prominent congressional Democrats who did not vote to authorize the invasion were willing to defend the Bush administration's WMD claims. When House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi appeared on NBC's Meet the Press in December 2002, she claimed: "Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There is no question about that." Despite repeated requests for information, made by me and other San Francisco constituents, her staff has been unwilling to reveal what led the Democratic leader to make such a groundless claim with such certitude.
The consequence of these Democrats' actions go well beyond their losses in the 2004 election. If the Democrats had been honest and acknowledged that there was no proof to support Bush administration claims of a reconstituted Iraqi WMD program, the Republicans would have been exposed as deliberately misleading the country into war, thereby making it far more difficult for them to get away with the kind of fear-mongering which threaten further U.S. military interventions in the region and increased waste of our nation's resources into paying for bloated military budgets at the expense of pressing human needs at home. Instead, the prospects of a less militaristic foreign policy and the promises of a post-Cold War "peace dividend" may have been lost for the foreseeable future.
Some Democrats have defended their pre-invasion claims by citing the public summary of the 2002 NIE which appeared to confirm some of the Bush administration's claims. However, there were a number of reasons to have been skeptical: this NIE was compiled in a much shorter time frame than is normally provided for such documents and the report expressed far more certainty regarding Iraq's WMD capabilities than all reports from the previous five years despite the lack of additional data to justify such a shift. When the report was released, there was much stronger dissent within the intelligence community than about any other NIE in history and the longer classified version, which was available to every member of Congress, included these dissenting voices from within the intelligence community
Others have defended the Democrats by saying that if they had insisted on hard evidence to support the administration's WMD claims they would have been accused of being weak on national defense. This excuse has little merit, however, since Republicans accuse Democrats of being weak on defense whatever they do. For example, even though congressional Democrats voted nearly unanimously to grant President Bush extraordinary war powers immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks and strongly supported the bombing of Afghanistan, this did not prevent the White House from falsely accusing Democrats of calling for "moderation and restraint" towards the Al-Qaeda terrorists and offering "therapy and understanding for our attackers." Similarly, even though 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Kerry defended America's right to unilaterally invade foreign countries in violation of the United Nations Charter and basic international legal standards, President Bush still accused him of believing that "in order to defend ourselves, we'd have to get international approval."
In reality, it appears that the Democrats were as enthusiastic about the United States invading and occupying Iraq as were the Republicans and that the WMD claims were largely a means of scaring the American public into accepting the right of the United States to effectively renounce 20th century international legal norms in favor of the right of conquest. Indeed, Senators Kerry, Edwards, and Clinton all subsequently stated that they would have voted to authorize the invasion even if they knew Iraq did not have WMDs (though, in response to popular pressure, they have begun to express some doubts in recent weeks.) Given their apparent eagerness for an excuse to go to war in order to take over that oil-rich nation, they seem to have been willing to believe virtually anything the Bush administration said and dismiss the concerns of independent strategic analysts who saw through the falsehoods.
This may help explain why congressional Democrats had been so reluctant, until faced with enormous pressure from their constituents following the Libby indictments, to push for a serious inquiry regarding the Bush administration misleading the American public on Iraqi WMDs: the Democrats are guilty as well. It may also explain why pro-Democratic newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post were so unwilling to publicize the Downing Street memos and so belittled efforts by the handful of conscientious Democrats, such as Michigan Representative John Conyers, to uncover WMD deceptions. Such failures have led both newspapers' ombudsmen to issue rare rebukes.
Even after it has become apparent that the Bush administration had been dishonest regarding Iraq's alleged threat, Democrats still seem unwilling to take a more skeptical view of administration claims regarding alleged WMD threats from overseas. For example, congressional Democrats have overwhelmingly voted in favor of legislation targeting Syria and Iran based primarily on dubious claims by the Bush administration of these countries' military capabilities and alleged threats to American security interests. Given that the vast majority of Democrats who hyped false WMD claims regarding Iraq were re-elected in 2004 anyway, they apparently believe that they have little to lose by again reinforcing the administration's alarmist claims of threats to U.S. national security.
Perhaps we need to prove them wrong. The United States will almost certainly find itself in another war based on phony claims that the targeted country possesses WMDs unless members of Congress know there will be political consequences to their actions. As a result, in order to advance the cause of peace and a responsible foreign policy, it may be necessary to target all members of Congress up for re-election next year who made false statements regarding Iraq's WMD capabilities - both Republican and Democrat - for defeat.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and the author of "Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism" (Common Courage Press, 2003). He is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus www.fpif.org, where some segments of this article first appeared.