What Does Hillary’s Vote in Favor of the Iraq War Really Signify?

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tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016, Iraq War

Robert Brent Toplin was a professor of history at Denison University and is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Currently he lives in Charlottesville, where he teaches occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books about history, politics, and film. Contact: rt2b@Virginia.edu

Related Link HNN’s coverage of the Iraq War

In recent debates presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a persuasive response to Hillary Clinton’s claims about her broad experience and knowledge in foreign policy. Sanders pointed out that Hillary Clinton erred in October, 2002 when, as a senator, she backed President George W. Bush’s request for authorization to take military action in Iraq. Bernie Sanders reminded audiences that he opposed that resolution when he was a congressman from Vermont. Sanders claimed his stand demonstrated greater wisdom in dealing with international affairs.

Did Hillary Clinton’s decision to back President Bush in 2002 reveal deep flaws in judgment? Or do historical conditions at the time of the vote suggest that the situation was more complex than Sanders and other critics of Mrs. Clinton acknowledge? Does consideration of that context lead to a less damning assessment of Hillary Clinton’s position on the Iraq resolution?

Neither Hillary Clinton nor many other Democrats in the Senate were pleased when President George W. Bush thrust a war-authority resolution in front of them shortly before the November 5, 2002 congressional elections. Dick Gephardt, the Democratic House Minority Leader and Tom Daschle, the Democrats’ Senate Minority Leader, accused the President of “playing politics.” They complained that the Bush Administration was putting Democratic legislators on the spot. If they rejected the President’s request, they would look like appeasers. President Bush seemed to justify their criticism when he spoke on behalf of Republican candidates for Congress shortly before the November elections. Bush denounced various Democrats in Congress for trying to deny presidential authority to confront major security threats.

Senator Hillary Clinton found decision-making difficult when evaluating the President’s request. She had opposed the Vietnam War when she was an undergraduate at Wellesley and as a law student at Yale. Senator Clinton spent considerable time in the fall of 2002 examining evidence presented by the Bush Administration. She said the vote was “probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.” But she made it with conviction. Hillary Clinton warned that Saddam Hussein was developing biological and chemical weapons. She warned that Iraq might develop nuclear capabilities. Saddam Hussein, she charged, threatened to “alter the landscape of the Middle East.”

Did Hillary Clinton expect the vote in Congress would lead to war? She and other prominent Democrats said they hoped their support for President Bush would increase pressure on Saddam Hussein and produce a diplomatic solution. Yet the language of the resolution they were backing indicated clearly that military intervention was an option on the table. The resolution authorized the President to use the armed forces of the US to defend the nation against threats from Iraq.

In recent years Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that her vote “got it wrong” but she added, “I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong.” She was correct on that point.

In 2002 many other Democrats in the Senate backed the resolution. Support for war-making authority came from Democratic senators with liberal credentials, including Tom Daschle, Byron Dorgan, Diane Feinstein, Harry Reid, Jay Rockefeller and Chuck Schumer. Senator John Kerry, who ran for President in 2004, voted for the Iraq resolution, as did Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. Other Democratic senators opposed the resolution, including Paul Wellstone, Dick Durbin, Russ Feingold, Robert Byrd, and Edward Kennedy. Democrats who were not in Congress and not required to vote on the resolution were freer to express their disapproval. Al Gore, speaking as a private citizen, offered a blistering critique of President Bush’s policy in Iraq. Barack Obama, a state senator in Illinois, also spoke eloquently in opposition.

Why did several Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, accept President Bush’s request for war-making authority?

Sensitivity to the political risks associated with opposition may have been a factor. When George W. Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush, asked for congressional support for military intervention in the Persian Gulf in 1991, many Democrats in the House and Senate opposed him. Some of those Democrats paid a price. An international coalition led by the United States handily defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces and freed Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War was enormously popular in the United States. In the 1992 and 1994 congressional elections some Democrats who had opposed that war lost their seats. Republican candidates prevailed for a variety of reasons – not just because of Democratic politicians’ stance on the resolution -- but Democrats recognized a lesson in the election results. Opposing a President’s patriotic-sounding request for authority to stand up against aggression could harm a politician’s career. Democrats who were eager to achieve higher office, including the presidency, tended to back President Bush in 2002. Hillary Clinton, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, and Joe Biden were among them. Mrs. Clinton won election as U.S. senator in 2000. She did not need to face voters in November, 2002, but she was well aware of long-term political risks associated with a vote to oppose the President during an international crisis. Hillary Clinton’s speech explaining her decision characterized Saddam Hussein as a severe threat to peace in the Middle East. In October, 2002 many prominent people in American society agreed with her assessment of the threats and dangers. Journalists in the national media failed to ask enough tough questions about the Bush Administration’s claims that Iraq was developing WMDs and that Iraq was implicated in the tragedy of 9/11. Later, the New York Times and other newspapers came under fire for publishing articles that placed excessive credence in the administration’s assertions.

Also, in October 2002, many Americans were fearful about the possibility of another terrorist attack. In March of that year the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale. Those notices put the public on edge. Homeland Security raised the alert level from yellow to orange in September, 2002, just a month before the congressional vote on the Iraq resolution (that warning related to the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks). Under the circumstances, the President’s request for authority to confront a supposedly dangerous threat appeared reasonable.

An investigator in search of evidence revealing the pervasiveness of nervous public sentiment can find relevant information in a video on YouTube. It shows filmmaker Michael Moore receiving an Academy Award for his documentary, Bowling for Columbine. The date is March 23, 2003 -- four days after U.S. bombing of Iraq had begun. When Moore first steps on the stage, the audience cheers loudly. Then Moore uses the occasion to berate President Bush for starting a war in Iraq on the basis of flimsy evidence. Suddenly the audience erupts in loud protests. The band strikes up and the provocative filmmaker is quickly ushered off the stage. This incident, occurring several months after the historic congressional vote of October, 2002, shows that support for U.S. military action remained strong. Quite a few members of the generally liberal Hollywood community objected fiercely when Michael Moore dared to criticize the President and his program of military intervention.

References to the vote concerning President Bush’s request for war-making authority can hurt a candidate like Hillary Clinton today because of the ways that President Bush and his advisers executed the Iraq war and occupation. In the months and years after the invasion of Iraq it became clear that the Bush administration failed to plan adequately. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld grossly underestimated the number of troops needed to subdue the Iraqi population and establish control over the country. Paul Bremmer, who governed U.S. activities in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, quickly disbanded Iraq’s military security forces and intelligence infrastructure. That was one of the biggest mistakes of America’s occupation, for it stoked a powerful Sunni-led insurgency. Cruel treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib embarrassed the administration. The number of injured and killed Americans escalated, as did the cost of the war. By November of 2005, political backing for the U.S. intervention in Iraq began to crumble. Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha of the House defense appropriations committee called for a quick pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. Then many other political leaders joined the call for a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces.

In short, the authorization for military action backed by Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders in October 2002 appeared more horribly mistaken after the Bush Administration’s ineptitude in managing the war and occupation became manifest.

Bernie Sanders’s criticism of Hillary Clinton for supporting the resolution in 2002 is appropriate but simplistic. It is foolish to treat Mrs. Clinton’s single vote, made without the wealth of disturbing evidence that came to light after October, 2002, as a clear sign of her inability to manage America’s international relations. If Clinton’s decision in 2002 must destroy our faith in her judgment, it must also undermine our confidence in the judgments of our present Secretary of State, John Kerry, our current Vice President, Joe Biden, and several prominent Democrats in today’s Senate. Those leaders voted similarly on the Iraq resolution. Yet Hillary Clinton will always feel uncomfortable when references to her vote are invoked during presidential debates. It is not easy to explain why she backed the resolution at a time when other Democratic leaders, including the current President of the United States, resisted President George W. Bush’s request for war-making authority.

Both the enthusiasts of Sanders and Clinton can find grist for their political mills when examining the historical record. Bernie Sanders is correct: Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats should have rejected President Bush’s request. The resolution was insufficiently supported with plausible evidence. But Bernie Sanders and his followers are leveling crude indictments when they claim Mrs. Clinton’s vote reveals that she exercises poor judgment in international affairs. It is not surprising that Hillary Clinton acknowledges her error of 2002 and attempts to move on quickly when confronted with criticism of it. Presidential debates, which allow candidates just seconds or minutes to address questions, do not provide good arenas for exploring the complex history of this controversy.

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