The 5 Worst Excuses for Hillary Clinton’s Vote To Invade Iraq

Clinton supporters want Democratic voters to forgive their candidate’s support for the most disastrous foreign policy decision in decades. They shouldn’t.

Stephen Zunes February 1, 2016

(Aslan Media / Flickr / Creative Commons)

For­mer sen­a­tor and sec­re­tary of state Hillary Clin­ton is the only can­di­date for the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion who sup­port­ed the inva­sion of Iraq.

It would have been a “mistake” if Hillary Clinton had pushed the “aye” button when she meant to push the “nay” button. In fact, her decision—by her own admission—was quite conscious.

That war not only result­ed in 4,500 Amer­i­can sol­diers being killed and thou­sands more per­ma­nent­ly dis­abled, but also hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqi deaths, the desta­bi­liza­tion of the region with the rise of the Islam­ic State and oth­er extrem­ists, and a dra­mat­ic increase in the fed­er­al deficit, result­ing in major cut­backs to impor­tant social pro­grams. More­over, the pri­ma­ry rea­sons Clin­ton gave for sup­port­ing Pres­i­dent George W. Bush’s request for autho­riz­ing that ille­gal and unnec­es­sary war have long been proven false.

As a result, many Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers are ques­tion­ing — despite her years of for­eign pol­i­cy expe­ri­ence — whether Clin­ton has the judg­ment and integri­ty to lead the Unit­ed States on the world stage. It was just such con­cerns that result­ed in her los­ing the 2008 nom­i­na­tion to then-Sen­a­tor Barack Oba­ma, an out­spo­ken Iraq War opponent.

This time around, Clin­ton sup­port­ers have been hop­ing that enough Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers — the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of whom opposed the war — will for­get about her strong endorse­ment of the Bush administration’s most dis­as­trous for­eign pol­i­cy. Fail­ing that, they’ve come up with a num­ber of excus­es to jus­ti­fy her Octo­ber 2002 vote for the autho­riza­tion of mil­i­tary force.

Here they are, in no par­tic­u­lar order.

1. Hillary Clinton’s vote wasn’t for war, but sim­ply to pres­sure Sad­dam Hus­sein to allow UN weapons inspec­tors back into Iraq.”

At the time of vote, Sad­dam Hus­sein had already agreed in prin­ci­ple to a return of the weapons inspec­tors. His gov­ern­ment was nego­ti­at­ing with the Unit­ed Nations Mon­i­tor­ing and Ver­i­fi­ca­tion Com­mis­sion on the details, which were for­mal­ly insti­tu­tion­al­ized a few weeks lat­er. (Indeed, it would have been resolved ear­li­er had the Unit­ed States not repeat­ed­ly post­poned a UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion in the hopes of insert­ing lan­guage that would have allowed Wash­ing­ton to uni­lat­er­al­ly inter­pret the lev­el of compliance.)

Fur­ther­more, if then-Sen­a­tor Clinton’s desire was sim­ply to push Sad­dam into com­ply­ing with the inspec­tion process, she wouldn’t have vot­ed against the sub­sti­tute Levin amend­ment, which would have also grant­ed Pres­i­dent Bush author­i­ty to use force, but only if Iraq defied sub­se­quent UN demands regard­ing the inspec­tions process. Instead, Clin­ton vot­ed for a Repub­li­can-spon­sored res­o­lu­tion to give Bush the author­i­ty to invade Iraq at the time and cir­cum­stances of his own choosing.

In fact, unfet­tered large-scale weapons inspec­tions had been going on in Iraq for near­ly four months at the time the Bush admin­is­tra­tion launched the March 2003 inva­sion. Despite the UN weapons inspec­tors hav­ing not found any evi­dence of WMDs or active WMD pro­grams after months of search­ing, Clin­ton made clear that the Unit­ed States should invade Iraq any­way. Indeed, she assert­ed that even though Sad­dam was in full com­pli­ance with the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, he nev­er­the­less need­ed to resign as pres­i­dent, leave the coun­try, and allow U.S. troops to occu­py the coun­try. The pres­i­dent gave Sad­dam Hus­sein one last chance to avoid war,” Clin­ton said in a state­ment, and the world hopes that Sad­dam Hus­sein will final­ly hear this ulti­ma­tum, under­stand the sever­i­ty of those words, and act accordingly.”

When Sad­dam refused to resign and the Bush admin­is­tra­tion launched the inva­sion, Clin­ton went on record call­ing for unequiv­o­cal sup­port” for Bush’s firm lead­er­ship and deci­sive action” as part of the ongo­ing Glob­al War on Ter­ror­ism.” She insist­ed that Iraq was some­how still in mate­r­i­al breach of the rel­e­vant Unit­ed Nations res­o­lu­tions” and, despite the fact that weapons inspec­tors had pro­duced evi­dence to the con­trary, claimed the inva­sion was nec­es­sary to neu­tral­ize Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

2. Near­ly every­one in Con­gress sup­port­ed the inva­sion of Iraq, includ­ing most Democrats.”

While all but one con­gres­sion­al Demo­c­rat — Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bar­bara Lee of Cal­i­for­nia — sup­port­ed the autho­riza­tion of force to fight al-Qae­da in the after­math of the 911 attacks in 2001, a siz­able major­i­ty of Democ­rats in Con­gress vot­ed against the autho­riza­tion to invade Iraq the fol­low­ing year.

There were 21 Sen­ate Democ­rats — along with one Repub­li­can, Lin­coln Chafee, and one inde­pen­dent, Jim Jef­fords — who vot­ed against the war res­o­lu­tion, while 126 of 209 House Democ­rats also vot­ed against it. Bernie Sanders, then an inde­pen­dent House mem­ber who cau­cused with the Democ­rats, vot­ed with the oppo­si­tion. At the time, Sanders gave a floor speech dis­put­ing the administration’s claims about Saddam’s arse­nal. He not only cau­tioned that both Amer­i­can and Iraqi casu­al­ties could rise unac­cept­ably high, but also warned about the prece­dent that a uni­lat­er­al inva­sion of Iraq could estab­lish in terms of inter­na­tion­al law and the role of the Unit­ed Nations.”

Hillary Clin­ton, on the oth­er hand, stood among the right-wing minor­i­ty of Democ­rats in Washington.

The Democ­rats con­trolled the Sen­ate at the time of the war autho­riza­tion. Had they closed ranks and vot­ed in oppo­si­tion, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion would have been unable to launch the trag­ic inva­sion — at least not legal­ly. Instead, Clin­ton and oth­er pro-war Democ­rats chose to cross the aisle to side with the Republicans.

3. Her vote was sim­ply a mistake.”

While few Clin­ton sup­port­ers are still will­ing to argue her sup­port for the war was a good thing, many try to min­i­mize its sig­nif­i­cance by refer­ring to it as sim­ply a mis­take.” But while it may have been a ter­ri­ble deci­sion, it was nei­ther an acci­dent nor an aber­ra­tion from Clinton’s gen­er­al­ly hawk­ish worldview.

It would have been a mis­take” if Hillary Clin­ton had pushed the aye” but­ton when she meant to push the nay” but­ton. In fact, her deci­sion — by her own admis­sion — was quite conscious.

The Octo­ber 2002 war res­o­lu­tion on Iraq wasn’t like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin res­o­lu­tion autho­riz­ing mil­i­tary force in Viet­nam, which was quick­ly passed as an emer­gency request by Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son when there was no time for reflec­tion and debate. By con­trast, at the time of the Iraq War autho­riza­tion, there had been months of pub­lic debate on the mat­ter. Clin­ton had plen­ty of time to inves­ti­gate the administration’s claims that Iraq was a threat, as well as to con­sid­er the like­ly con­se­quences of a U.S. invasion.

Also unlike the Gulf of Tonkin res­o­lu­tion, which was disin­gen­u­ous­ly pre­sent­ed as an autho­riza­tion to retal­i­ate for an alleged attack on U.S. ships, mem­bers of Con­gress rec­og­nized that the Iraq res­o­lu­tion autho­rized a full-scale inva­sion of a sov­er­eign nation and a sub­se­quent mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion. Clin­ton had met with scores of con­stituents, arms con­trol ana­lysts, and Mid­dle East schol­ars who informed her that the war was unnec­es­sary, ille­gal, and would like­ly end in disaster.

But she decid­ed to sup­port going to war any­way. She even reject­ed the advice of fel­low Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor Bob Gra­ham that she read the full Nation­al Intel­li­gence Esti­mate, which would have fur­ther chal­lenged some of the Bush administration’s claims jus­ti­fy­ing the war.

It was not, there­fore, sim­ply a mis­take,” or a momen­tary lapse of judg­ment. Indeed, in her own words, she cast her vote with conviction.”

As late as Feb­ru­ary 2007, Clin­ton her­self refused to admit that her vote for the war res­o­lu­tion was a mis­take. If the most impor­tant thing to any of you is choos­ing some­one who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mis­take,” she said while cam­paign­ing for pres­i­dent, then there are oth­ers to choose from.” She only began to acknowl­edge her regrets when she saw the polling num­bers show­ing that a siz­able major­i­ty of Democ­rats opposed the deci­sion to go to war.

4. She vot­ed for the war because she felt it was polit­i­cal­ly necessary.” 

First of all, vot­ing for a dev­as­tat­ing war in order to advance one’s polit­i­cal career isn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong ratio­nale for why one shouldn’t share respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­se­quences — espe­cial­ly when that cal­cu­la­tion proved dis­as­trous­ly wrong. Clinton’s vote to autho­rize the inva­sion was the sin­gle most impor­tant fac­tor in con­vinc­ing for­mer sup­port­ers to back Barack Oba­ma in the 2008 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, there­by cost­ing her the nomination.

Nev­er­the­less, it still rais­es ques­tions regard­ing Hillary Clinton’s com­pe­tence to become president.

To have believed that sup­port­ing the inva­sion would some­how be seen as a good thing would have meant that Clin­ton believed that the broad con­sen­sus of Mid­dle East schol­ars who warned of a cost­ly coun­terin­sur­gency war were wrong — and that the Bush administration’s insis­tence that U.S. occu­pa­tion forces would be treat­ed as lib­er­a­tors” was credible.

After all, for the war to have been pop­u­lar, there would have had to be few Amer­i­can casu­al­ties, and the administration’s claims about WMDs and Iraq’s ties to al-Qae­da would have had to be vin­di­cat­ed. More­over, some sort of sta­ble pro-West­ern democ­ra­cy would have emerged in Iraq, and the inva­sion would have con­tributed to greater sta­bil­i­ty and democ­ra­cy in the region.

If Clin­ton believed any of those things were pos­si­ble, she wasn’t pay­ing atten­tion. Among the scores of rep­utable Mid­dle East schol­ars with whom I dis­cussed the prospects of a U.S. inva­sion in the months lead­ing up to the vote, none of them believed that any of these things would come to pass. They were right.

Nor was pres­sure like­ly com­ing from Clinton’s own con­stituents. Only a minor­i­ty of Democ­rats nation­wide sup­port­ed the inva­sion, and giv­en that New York Democ­rats are more lib­er­al than the nation­al aver­age, oppo­si­tion was pos­si­bly even stronger in the state she pur­port­ed to rep­re­sent. Addi­tion­al­ly, a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans polled said they would oppose going to war if Sad­dam allowed for full and com­plete” weapons inspec­tors, which he in fact did.

Final­ly, the idea that Clin­ton felt oblig­ed to sup­port the war as a woman in order not to appear weak” also appears ground­less. Indeed, every female sen­a­tor who vot­ed against the war autho­riza­tion was eas­i­ly re-elected.

5. She thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruc­tion’ and was sup­port­ing Al-Qaeda.”

This is excuse is prob­lem­at­ic on a num­ber levels.

Before the vote, UN inspec­tors, inde­pen­dent strate­gic ana­lysts, and rep­utable arms con­trol jour­nals all chal­lenged the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had some­how rebuilt its chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal weapons pro­grams, had a nuclear weapons pro­gram, or was sup­port­ing al-Qae­da terrorists.

Vir­tu­al­ly all of Iraq’s known stock­piles of chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal agents had been account­ed for, and the shelf life of the small amount of matériel that hadn’t been account­ed for had long since expired. (Some dis­card­ed can­is­ters from the 1980s were even­tu­al­ly found, but these weren’t oper­a­tional.) There was no evi­dence that Iraq had any deliv­ery sys­tems for such weapons either, or could build them with­out being detect­ed. In addi­tion, a strict embar­go against imports of any addi­tion­al mate­ri­als need­ed for the man­u­fac­ture of WMDs — which had been in effect since 1990 — made any claims that Iraq had offen­sive capa­bil­i­ty trans­par­ent­ly false to any­one who cared to inves­ti­gate the mat­ter at that time.

Most of the alleged intel­li­gence data made avail­able to Con­gress pri­or to the war autho­riza­tion vote has since been declas­si­fied. Most strate­gic ana­lysts have found it trans­par­ent­ly weak, based pri­mar­i­ly on hearsay by Iraqi exiles of dubi­ous cred­i­bil­i­ty and con­jec­ture by ide­o­log­i­cal­ly dri­ven Bush admin­is­tra­tion officials.

Sim­i­lar­ly, a detailed 1998 report by the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency indi­cat­ed that Iraq’s nuclear pro­gram appeared to have been com­plete­ly dis­man­tled by the mid-1990s, and a 2002 U.S. Nation­al Intel­li­gence Esti­mate made no men­tion of any recon­sti­tut­ed nuclear devel­op­ment effort. So it’s doubt­ful Clin­ton actu­al­ly had rea­son to believe her own claims that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program.

Addi­tion­al­ly, there was no cred­i­ble evi­dence what­so­ev­er that the sec­u­lar Baathist Iraqi régime had any ties to the hard­line Islamist group al-Qae­da, yet Clin­ton dis­tin­guished her­self as the only Sen­ate Demo­c­rat to make such a claim. Indeed, a defin­i­tive report by the Depart­ment of Defense not­ed that not only did no such link exist, but that none could have even been rea­son­ably sug­gest­ed based on the evi­dence avail­able at that time.

More­over, even if Iraq real­ly did have weapons of mass destruc­tion,” the war would have still been ille­gal, unnec­es­sary, and catastrophic.

Rough­ly 30 coun­tries (includ­ing the Unit­ed States) have chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, or nuclear pro­grams with weapons poten­tial. The mere pos­ses­sion of these pro­grams is not legit­i­mate grounds for inva­sion, unless one is autho­rized by the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil — which the inva­sion of Iraq, point­ed­ly, was not. If Clin­ton real­ly thought Iraq’s alleged pos­ses­sion of those weapons jus­ti­fied her sup­port for invad­ing the coun­try, then she was effec­tive­ly say­ing the Unit­ed States some­how has the right to invade dozens of oth­er coun­tries as well.

Sim­i­lar­ly, even if Iraq had been one of those 30 coun­tries — and remem­ber, it was not — the threat of mas­sive retal­i­a­tion by Iraq’s neigh­bors and U.S. forces per­ma­nent­ly sta­tioned in the region pro­vid­ed a more than suf­fi­cient deter­rent to Iraq using the weapons beyond its bor­ders. A cost­ly inva­sion and extend­ed occu­pa­tion were com­plete­ly unnecessary.

Final­ly, the sub­se­quent war and the rise of sec­tar­i­an­ism, ter­ror­ism, Islamist extrem­ism, and the oth­er neg­a­tive con­se­quences of the inva­sion would have been just as bad even if the ratio­nale weren’t bogus. Amer­i­can casu­al­ties could have actu­al­ly been much high­er, since WMDs would have like­ly been used against invad­ing U.S. forces.

But here’s the kick­er: Clin­ton stood by the war even after these claims were defin­i­tive­ly debunked.

Even many months after the Bush admin­is­tra­tion itself acknowl­edged that Iraq had nei­ther WMDs nor ties to Al-Qae­da, Clin­ton declared in a speech at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty that her sup­port for the autho­riza­tion was still the right vote” and one that I stand by.” Sim­i­lar­ly, in an inter­view on Lar­ry King Live in April 2004, when asked about her vote despite the absence of WMDs or al-Qae­da ties, she acknowl­edged, I don’t regret giv­ing the pres­i­dent authority.”

No Excus­es

The 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial cam­paign is com­ing down to a race between Hillary Clin­ton, who sup­port­ed the Bush Doc­trine and its call for invad­ing coun­tries that are no threat to us regard­less of the con­se­quences, and Bernie Sanders, who sup­port­ed the broad con­sen­sus of Mid­dle East schol­ars and oth­ers famil­iar with the region who rec­og­nized that such an inva­sion would be disastrous.

There’s no ques­tion that the Unit­ed States is long over­due to elect a woman head of state. But elect­ing Hillary Clin­ton — or any­one else who sup­port­ed the inva­sion of Iraq — would be send­ing a dan­ger­ous mes­sage that reck­less glob­al mil­i­tarism needn’t pre­vent some­one from becom­ing pres­i­dent, even as the nom­i­nee of the more lib­er­al of the two major parties.

It also rais­es this omi­nous sce­nario: If Clin­ton were elect­ed pres­i­dent despite hav­ing vot­ed to give Pres­i­dent Bush the author­i­ty, based on false pre­tens­es, to launch a war of aggres­sion — in vio­la­tion of the UN Char­ter, the Nurem­berg Prin­ci­ples, and com­mon sense — what would stop her from demand­ing that Con­gress give her the same authority?

Stephen Zunes is a pro­fes­sor of Pol­i­tics and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co. Read more of his work at stephen​zunes​.org.
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