Clinton's Iraq Vote - Five Years Later

The fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war provides an appropriate moment to revisit Hillary Clinton's argument in favor of authorizing Bush's use of force, and to contrast it with the case made at the time by Bush's opponents.

In the last few years, Clinton has defended her vote by arguing that "if I knew then what I know now, I would never have given President Bush the authority" to attack Iraq. But a majority of Democrats in the House knew enough "then" to vote against the resolution - as did 21 out of 50 Democratic senators.

In Clinton's Senate speech, still posted on her senate website, she began by accepting Bush's premise 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." The question, she said, was whether war was the appropriate means of stopping those developments.

In supporting Bush, Clinton claimed to be taking a middle path between two extremes - on the one hand, those who believed we should go to war only if the UN Security Council approved it, which she considered absurd, and on the other, those who favored "attacking Saddam Hussein now." But not even Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld favored an immediate attack at the point the Senate debate occurred -- October 2002 - so she was rejecting an argument no one was making.

Probably the biggest concession she made to Bush was accepting his argument that war was a legitimate response to the attacks on 9-11, which had occurred just one year earlier. Although she did not explicitly agree with Bush's statements linking al Qaeda to Iraq, she did say her vote was justified by "last year's terrible attacks," and that "in balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am."

Other Senators rejected precisely those arguments. Russ Feingold voted against the authorization to use force in part because of what he called "the President's singularly unpersuasive attempt . . . to interweave 9-11 and Iraq." He criticized the "shifting justifications for an invasion," noting "the spectacle of the President and senior Administration officials citing a purported connection to al Qaeda one day, weapons of mass destruction the next day, Saddam Hussein's treatment of his own people on another day."

Ted Kennedy raised a key issue Clinton never considered: going to war against Iraq, he said, "will jeopardize the war against terrorism" - against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. "One year into the battle against Al Qaeda, the administration is shifting the focus, the resources and the energy to Iraq. The change in priority is coming before we have eliminated the threat from Al Qaeda."

While Clinton accepted Bush's claims regarding Saddam's possession weapons of mass destruction, others rejected them. Jim Jeffords, Republican of Vermont said, "There is much speculation about his weapons of mass destruction, but no evidence that he has developed nuclear capability and less that he could deliver it."

Robert Byrd opposed the resolution on other grounds, arguing that "The newly bellicose mood that permeates this White House . . . is clearly motivated by campaign politics. Republicans are already running attack ads against Democrats on Iraq." The criticism of Clinton was implicit but obvious.

In the House, Nancy Pelosi proved to be prescient about the course of the war: "There is no political solution on the ground in Iraq," she declared. "So when we go in, the occupation which is now being called liberation could be interminable. And so could the amount of money, unlimited, that it will cost -- 100, 200 billion dollars." (Of course the war is now costing more than ten times that.)

As for the dangers arising from a long occupation, that problem was foreseen by none other than Henry Kissinger. He testified at a Senate committee hearing before the war vote that he was "viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country." In Clinton's speech, she never considered that argument.

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