The conventional wisdom is that the key result in the Senate elections this Tuesday is whether enough Republican incumbents can be defeated in order for the Democrats to re-take the upper house of Congress. Even more important, perhaps, is whether the fourteen incumbent senators seeking re-election who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq will be punished or rewarded for their fateful decision. This will be the first time they have faced their electorate since their October 2002 vote which gave unprecedented authority to President George W. Bush, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations Charter, to invade a sovereign nation on the far side the planet at the time and circumstances of his own choosing
In the two previous election cycles, the overwhelming majority of pro-war incumbents were easily re-elected. This year, however, with a solid majority of Americans recognizing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was wrong, the results could be very different. Virtually all of the Republicans – as well as such Democrats as Clinton, Lieberman and Cantwell – still defend their decision to authorize the invasion. Other senators, mostly from the Democratic side of the aisle, have acknowledged that, knowing what they know now, they would not have voted to go to war.
Even those senators who publicly regret their vote in hindsight, however, appear to have done so because they believe that it is politically expedient, they belatedly recognize that Iraq was not actually a threat to U.S. national security at the time of the invasion as the Bush administration claimed, or they have seen the negative results of the seriously flawed post-invasion policies of the Bush administration. (As one prominent Democratic senator told me in private, “I had no idea they’d fuck up so badly!”) None have publicly acknowledged that launching such a war of aggression was fundamentally illegal and immoral, nor have any of them acknowledged their irresponsibility or dishonesty in making false claims about Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and operational ties to Al-Qaida.
Except for Joe Lieberman (who is now running as an independent), all of the pro-war senators seeking re-election were re-nominated by their parties. As a result, many anti-war activists are calling on voters send a strong message by defeating as many of them as possible on November 7. According to this argument, if the majority of pro-war senators of either party are re-elected, it will show that voters can easily forgive such illegality and immorality and will therefore make it more likely that they would vote to authorize yet another illegal and immoral war and again mislead the public about non-existent threats to U.S. national security in order to justify it.
Senators who authorized the invasion of Iraq facing voters for the first time since then this Tuesday are:
George Allen R-Virginia
Conrad Burns R-Montana
Tom Carper D-Delaware
Hillary Clinton D-New York
Mike DeWine R-Ohio
John Ensign R-Nevada
Kay Bailey Hutchison R-Texas
Herbert Kohl D-Wisconsin
Jon Kyl R-Arizona
Joe Lieberman D- Connecticut
Trent Lott R-Mississippi
Richard Lugar R-Indiana
Ben Nelson D-Nebraska
Rick Santorum R-Pennsylvania
Olympia Snowe R-Maine
As readers of this website know, there was widespread skepticism expressed by former UN inspectors, journalists, intelligence officials, academics, arms control experts and others about the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq still somehow possessed offensive WMD capabilities as of 2002. Even mainstream news organizations like Knight-Ridder ran a series of articles just prior to the Congressional vote authorizing the invasion citing sources within the intelligence community raising questions about the Bush administration’s assertions. However, these senators were so eager to move forward with the invasion that they decided to try to convince the American public that there were absolutely no questions regarding Iraq’s alleged arsenal of WMDs.
For example, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) claimed in October 2002 that Iraq’s possession of such weapons “are not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” Similarly, Herbert Kohl (D-Wisconsin) insisted that “We know that Saddam Hussein’s regime… is continuing to produce massive quantities of biological and chemical agents.” Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana) insisted that “Saddam Hussein clearly has growing and increasingly sophisticated biological and chemical weapons capabilities.” Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) claimed “The essential facts are known. We know of the weapons in Saddam's possession: chemical, biological, and nuclear in time. …The facts are on our side.”
If Iraq being among dozens of countries that already had chemical and biological weapons was not scary enough to convince the American public of the need to invade Iraq, these senators tried to raise the nuclear threat as well. Even though the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency had reported in 1998 that Iraq’s nuclear program had been completely eliminated, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) claimed that Saddam Hussein “is engaged in developing nuclear weapons.” Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) claimed that “Iraq could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year” and, despite Iraq no longer having any long-range missiles or a functional air force, she insisted “We know Iraq already has the means to deliver it.” Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), in justifying her vote for the war, implied that Iraq already had nuclear weapons, claiming that without an invasion Iraq “will grow increasingly more dangerous as Saddam Hussein increases his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons stockpile.”
The U.S. 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, these senators were determined to make the case that the United States – with the strongest military the world has ever known and more than 10,000 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.
Despite Iraq’s military prowess being totally decimated by unilateral disarmament and more than a decade of draconian sanctions, Senator Feinstein claimed that Iraq posed a “consequential threat” and Senator Cantwell insisted that Iraq posed “a unique [and] dangerous threat.” Similarly, Senator Hutchison claimed that “the security of the United States is threatened.” John Ensign (R-Nevada) insisted that war was “unavoidable” and an “absolutely necessary in order to avoid putting innocent Americans’ lives at an unacceptable risk.” Similarly, Conrad Burns (R-Montana) asserted that Iraq “poses a threat to this country’s livelihood and to the American people.” Senator Kohl declared that going to war against Iraq was a “great cause” because “the threat Saddam Hussein and his weapons pose to this country and to world peace is real” and, in particular, constituted a “a great threat to America.”
When asked why they made these blatantly false claims, these senators deny that they lied about WMDs and claim that they made such statements because they were shown inaccurate intelligence reports. Some of the Democrats have acknowledged that the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence, though they fail to explain why they found such doctored intelligence reports 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 – these senators have refused to release the documents they claim convinced them of the alleged Iraqi threat. In effect, they are using the infamous Nixonian defense from the Watergate scandal 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 and outdated and would therefore be of no threat to national security if made public.
Despite raising questions regarding these senators’ credibility and despite plunging our nation into a tragic and unnecessary war which has cost the lives of nearly 3000 Americans and up to 650,000 Iraqi civilians, compromised our country’s reputation and legitimate security interests and drained our national treasury, American voters seem to be in a very forgiving mood. The majority of these senators appear to be headed for re-election.
Indeed, scores of self-described “progressive” organizations have been raising millions of dollars, which could have gone into anti-war activities, to support the re-election of a number of these pro-war senators simply because they are Democrats. Many prominent anti-war activists have also taken a “forgive and forget” attitude out of the desperate need to see the Democratic Party retake the Senate.
However, it should be remembered that it was the Democrats who controlled the Senate in the fall of 2002 when the Senate voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Majority leader Tom Daschle and assistant majority leader Harry Reid led the majority of their fellow Senate Democrats in voting to launch a war of aggression against a country that, despite their claims to the contrary, was no threat to the security of the United States. Already, leading Democratic senators like Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh are pushing for another war, this time against Iran, even complaining that President Bush has put too much emphasis on diplomacy and that he was wrong to have allowed the Europeans to take the leadership in resolving the standoff over than country’s nuclear program.
Admittedly, while issues of war and peace are perhaps the most crucial facing the country today, they are not the only issue. There is no question that denying the Republicans continued control of the Senate would be a positive development. There is certainly a case for voting for the “lesser evil” in a tight race in a year when the balance of power in Washington is at stake. Indeed, every Republican challenger to a Democratic incumbent also supported invading Iraq in 2003 and supports the ongoing war at least as much.
However, it makes little sense that well-qualified anti-war Green Party Senate candidates in states like Wisconsin, New York and California – where pro-war incumbent Democrats are projected to win by a huge majority – have failed to get much popular support. A strong showing by the Green nominees would send a powerful and badly-needed message to Washington without jeopardizing a Democratic victory, but that is not likely to be forthcoming.
This is profoundly disappointing. All the important anti-war organizing we do will be of little consequence as long as politicians think they can write a blank check for war and suffer no consequences from their constituents when it’s time for their re-election.
Stephen Zunes is a professor at the University of San Francisco.