By fall 2002, Bush appeared to have heeded Biden’s frequent exhortations for how to sell the war.
On September 12, almost a year to the day of the terrorist attacks that had sparked the march to war, Bush went before the UN to make a case for an invasion directly to the international community. Biden praised him for doing “a very good job” in making that case with a “brilliant” speech, and again stressed that “this is the world’s fight,” though cautioning that “the worst option is going it alone, but it is an option.”
That September, Bush also finally asked Congress for a war authorization. While the president backed an expansive resolution in the House, Biden and fellow Foreign Relations Committee member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) put forward their own rival resolution in the Senate that scaled back some of the House version’s more alarming language and stressed the themes Biden had been articulating for the better part of a year. The Senate resolution limited the use of force to Iraq, made dismantling WMDs the primary justification for war, and stressed the importance of international support (though reserving the right to act unilaterally if the UN Security Council moved too slowly).
“We are trying to give the president the power that he needs and get a large vote,” Biden explained.
Bush quickly routed Biden by making a compromise with Democratic House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt that swung momentum behind the House resolution. Deciding it was too late, and that there was no way of stopping its passage, Biden simply resigned himself to the compromise House resolution.
“In this place, everybody's pretty practical at the end of the day,” he said.
Bush ultimately won over Biden by incorporating several of his suggestions into the final resolution and a speech he gave on October 7, 2002, in which he painted Iraq as a “grave threat to peace” creating an “arsenal of terror.” He had “made a compelling case,” said Biden, who was “very pleased with his rationale that he laid out.”
While Biden reportedly wavered at the last moment on his promise to cast his vote, he ultimately fell in line, arguing the resolution would “give the president the kind of momentum he needs” to get Security Council backing. On October 11, Biden was one of 77 senators who voted to give Bush the authorization to wage war on Iraq, joining fellow Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid and Dianne Feinstein. Twenty-one Democratic senators, including Dick Durbin, Ron Wyden and Patrick Leahy, voted against it.
“At each pivotal moment, [President Bush] has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation,” Biden said on the Senate floor. “I believe he will continue to do so … the president has made it clear that war is neither imminent nor inevitable.”
A month later, Biden sailed to a sixth term to the Senate with 58 percent of the vote.
“POWERFUL AND IRREFUTABLE”
Biden wasn’t as eager to tout his leading role in the lead-up to the Iraq War in front of all audiences.
On November 11, 2002, Biden gave a speech at a meeting of the Trotter Group, an organization of African-American columnists. Perhaps owing to strong black opposition to the war, including the NAACP board’s October 28, 2002, adoption of a resolution opposing the invasion, Biden sounded very different notes in front of the audience. He denied there was a direct link between Hussein and al-Qaeda (“I don’t consider the war on Iraq the war on terror”) and struck a less hawkish note (“My hope is that we don’t need to go into Iraq”).
After chairing hearings filled with pro-war testimony, Biden told the Trotter Group crowd that “the guys who have to fight this war don't think it's a good idea,” and that doing so would be “the dumbest thing in the world.” Discussing the war authorization he had voted for, he claimed that Republicans had taken “something that nobody, including the president, believes is an imminent danger and moved it up in the election cycle,” and that he reluctantly supported the final resolution in order to give then-Secretary of State Colin Powell leverage to get a resolution out of the UN that would slow the administration’s march to war.
Yet even as he painted himself as a war opponent, Biden’s role in making the war happen wasn’t finished.
In December 2002, Biden embarked on a trip to Germany and the Middle East with Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to cobble together a coalition for the impending war. He first flew to Germany to meet with an Iraqi resistance leader, then headed to Jordan to meet with its monarch, before stopping in Israel and Qatar. The Delaware Republican Party sent him its best wishes.
“We wish the senator good luck and hope he continues to support the president on foreign-policy matters,” its chairman said.
At one point, Biden spoke to the Kurd Parliament in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, carved out in the wake of the first Gulf War. Biden made clear to the Kurds, longtime opponents of Hussein’s regime, that the United States had their back.
“We will stand with you in your effort to build a united Iraq,” he told them, adding that “the mountains are not your only friends,” playing off a local saying.
As Colin Powell prepared to present supposed evidence of Iraq’s WMD program to the UN in February—a factually flawed address that Powell two years later would call a “blot” on his record—Biden hyped the presentation to the press, saying the administration “has evidence now that can change people's minds.”
“I know there's enough circumstantial evidence that if this were a jury trial, I could convict you,” he said. After Powell’s address, Biden called his case “very powerful and I think irrefutable,” and told him, “I am proud to be associated with you.”
At the same time, Biden spent much of the rest of the month leading up to invasion painting himself as its opponent. He criticized Bush for everything but the actual decision to remove Hussein: for failing to make a sufficiently strong case to the public, for not securing more international buy-in for the invasion, for keeping Congress out of the loop and for grossly lackluster planning for postwar Iraq.
“As every hour goes by, I think the chance of war is increasing,” he said in early March, five months after voting to give Bush the power to invade Iraq. “I was hoping it wasn't, hoping there was a shot at doing this peacefully, but that looks slimmer and slimmer.”
Yet even after Bush failed to secure the international cooperation Biden had spent months insisting was necessary, the lack of support wasn’t enough to convince Biden to abandon his support. As Bush issued an ultimatum to Hussein on March 17—leave or be invaded—Biden was behind him.
“I support the president,” he said after meeting with Bush and other officials before the ultimatum. “Diplomacy over avoiding war is dead. … I do not see any alternative. It is not as if we can back away now.”
Biden portrayed himself as someone who had been powerless to stop the conflict.
“A lot of Americans, myself included, are really concerned about how we got to this stage and about all the lost opportunities for diplomacy,” he said. “But we are where we are. … Let loose the dogs of war. I'm confident we will win.” He and the rest of the Democrats voted to pass a Senate resolution 99-0 supporting Bush and commending the troops.
Months after the war was launched and Hussein was deposed, any reservations Biden claimed to have had about the war appeared to melt away.
“I, for one, thought we should have gone in Iraq,” he told CNN in June 2003, while noting that not all Democrats had been as enthusiastic about invading the country.
With the much-ballyhooed WMDs failing to materialize, Biden cast himself as a skeptic about the administration’s claims about their existence.
“I also said at the time, as far back as August, that I thought the administration was exaggerating the threat of weapons of mass destruction,” he told CNN.
During an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” later that month, he told host Tony Snow that he had never believed the Bush administration’s rhetoric on the issue, and that it had erred in exaggerating the threat, as there was sufficient grounds to invade Iraq based on the weapons it was reported to have in 1998.
“So you think, looking back on it, still, that it was a just war, in your opinion?” asked Snow.
“Oh, I do think it was a just war,” said Biden.
After playing a clip of then-presidential candidate Howard Dean boasting of his opposition to the war even at the height of its popularity, Snow asked Biden if Dean’s position should be the consensus view of the Democratic Party.
“No,” Biden flatly replied.
Even as the war effort rapidly went awry in the months that followed, with U.S. soldier deaths continuing to climb after major combat operations were declared over on May 1 and terrorist attacks becoming a regular feature of Iraqi life, Biden continued to insist that war had been the right course of action.
“I voted to go into Iraq, and I'd vote to do it again,” he said at a July 2003 hearing.
As growing numbers of Democrats, and even members of the general public, turned against the war, Biden rebuked them, implicitly and explicitly.
“In my view, anyone who can't acknowledge that the world is better off without [Hussein] is out of touch,” he said two days later.
“Contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner rather than later,” he insisted.
An increasingly lonely voice in a party that would soon make common cause with the growing anti-war movement, Biden continued to back Bush.
“The president made [the case against Saddam] well,” he concluded on July 31. “I commend the president.”
In the eyes of the public, a vote for the resolution that gave Bush the authority to wage war on Iraq is enough to cast serious doubt on a candidate’s judgment, as Hillary Clinton learned in 2016. But the fact is, Joe Biden did a lot more than cast a vote.
As an experienced and respected voice on foreign policy, a powerful Democrat, and someone widely perceived as a dove due to his opposition to the Vietnam war, Biden’s backing of regime change in Iraq was crucial to Bush’s effort of selling the public on the war. Biden’s insistence that Hussein posed a serious threat to the United States, possessed WMDs and needed to be removed from power helped create momentum for the rising pro-war campaign. And as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rather than question the prominent voices of doubt, including senior members of the U.S. military, Biden stacked his Iraq hearings with voices in agreement with Bush’s fallacious case for war.
Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness—including her vote for the Iraq war—was one of several factors that likely contributed to her 2016 loss to Donald Trump in key traditional Democratic states. But beyond arguments about electability, the next president will inherit a volatile world on the brink of several different conflicts, including a possible showdown with Iran. When voters chose the next Democratic nominee, they’ll have to decide whether someone who helped lead the march to war in Iraq is really the best person to take on Trump—and guide U.S. foreign policy as president.
This investigation was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.