This week marks the fifth anniversary of the congressional vote granting President George W. Bush unprecedented war-making authority to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing. Had a majority of either the Republican-controlled House or the Democratic-controlled Senate voted against the resolution or had they passed an alternative resolution conditioning such authority on an authorization from the United Nations Security Council, all the tragic events that have unfolded as a consequence of the March 2003 invasion would have never occurred.
The responsibility for the deaths of nearly 4,000 American soldiers, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the waste of over a half trillion dollars of our national treasury, and the rise of terrorism and Islamist extremism that has come as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq rests as much in the hands of the members in Congress who authorized the invasion as it does with the administration that requested the lawmakers’ approval.
Those who express surprise at the refusal of today’s Democratic majority in Congress to stop funding the war should remember this: the October 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion had the support of the majority of Democratic senators as well as the support of the Democratic Party leadership in both the House and the Senate.
Seven of the 77 senators who voted to authorize the invasion Fred Thompson (R-TN), John McCain (R-AZ), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Joseph Biden (D-DE), and John Edwards (D-NC) are now running for president. While the Republican candidates remain unapologetic, the Democratic candidates have sought to distance themselves from their vote, arguing that what is important in choosing a president is not how they voted in the past, but what she or he would do now.
Such efforts to avoid responsibility should be rejected out of hand. While I personally support a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as logistically feasible, there is considerable debate among knowledgeable, ethical, and intelligent people including those who also opposed the invasion as to what to do now. No reasonable person, however, could have supported the resolution authorizing the invasion five years ago.
On this and other web sites as well as in many scores of policy reports, newspaper articles, academic journals and other sources the tragic consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq and a refutation of falsehoods being put forward by the Bush administration to justify it were made available to every member of the House and Senate (see, for example, The Case Against a War with Iraq). The 2003 vote authorizing the invasion was not like the vote on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the use of force against North Vietnam, for which Congress had no time for hearings or debate and for which most of those supporting it (mistakenly) thought they were simply authorizing limited short-term retaliatory strikes in response to a specific series of alleged incidents. By contrast, in regard to the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Congress had many months to investigate and debate the administration’s claims that Iraq was a threat as well as the likely implications of a U.S. invasion; members of Congress also fully recognized that the resolution authorized a full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation and a subsequent military occupation of an indefinite period.
Violating International Legal Conventions
Those who voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq did so despite the fact that it violated international legal conventions to which the U.S. government is legally bound to uphold. The resolution constituted a clear violation of the United Nations Charter that, like other ratified international treaties, should be treated as supreme law according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. According to articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter, no member state has the right to enforce any resolution militarily unless the UN Security Council determines that there has been a material breach of its resolution, decides that all nonmilitary means of enforcement have been exhausted, and then specifically authorizes the use of military force.
This is what the Security Council did in November 1990 with Resolution 678 in response to Iraq’s ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions demanding its withdrawal from Kuwait, but the Security Council did not do so for any subsequent lesser Iraqi violations. The only other exception for the use of force authorized by the charter is in self-defense against armed attack, which even the Bush administration admitted had not taken place.
This effective renunciation of the UN Charter’s prohibition against such wars of aggression constituted an effective repudiation of the post-WWII international legal order. Alternative resolutions, such as one authorizing force against Iraq if authorized by the UN Security Council, were voted down by a bipartisan majority.
Some of those who voted for the war resolution and their supporters have since tried to rewrite history by claiming the resolution had a stronger legal basis. For example, in a recent interview with The Progressive magazine, Elizabeth Edwards claimed that the resolution supported by her husband, then-Senator John Edwards, involved “forcing Bush to go to the U.N. first.” In reality, not only was no such provision included in the resolution that passed, Edwards voted against the resolution amendment that would have required such a precondition, arguing that “our national security requires” that “we must not tie our own hands by requiring Security Council action.”
Members of Congress were also alerted by large numbers of scholars of the Middle East, Middle Eastern political leaders, former State Department and intelligence officials and others who recognized that a U.S. invasion would likely result in a bloody insurgency, a rise in Islamist extremism and terrorism, increased sectarian and ethnic conflict, and related problems. Few people I know who are familiar with Iraq have been at all surprised that the U.S. invasion has become such a tragedy. Indeed, most of us were in communication with congressional offices and often with individual members of Congress themselves in the months leading up to the vote warning of the likely consequences of an invasion and occupation. Therefore, claims by Senator Clinton and other leading Democratic supporters of the war that they were unaware of the likely consequences of the invasion are completely false.
The resolution also contained accusations that were known or widely assumed to be false at that time, such as claims of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States. A definitive report by the Department of Defense noted that not only did no such link exist, but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based on the evidence available at that time.
The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq was “actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability.” In reality, Iraq had long eliminated its nuclear program, a fact that was confirmed in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998, four years prior to the resolution.
The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq at that time continued “to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability.” In reality, as the U.S. government now admits, Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons nearly a decade earlier and no longer had any active chemical and biological weapons programs. This likelihood that Iraq no longer had operational chemical or biological weapons was brought to the attention of members of Congress by a number of top arms control specialists, as well as Scott Ritter, the American who headed UNSCOM’s efforts to locate Iraq’s possible hidden caches of chemical and biological weapons, hidden supplies or secret production facilities.
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 materiel that had not been accounted for which, as it ends up, had also been destroyed had long since expired and was therefore no longer of weapons grade. There was no evidence that Iraq had any delivery systems for such weapons, either. In addition, the strict embargo, in effect since 1990, against imports of any additional materials needed for the manufacture of WMDs, combined with Iraq’s inability to manufacture such weapons or delivery systems themselves without detection, made any claims that Iraq constituted any “significant chemical and biological weapons capability” transparently false to anyone who cared to investigate the matter at that time. Indeed, even the classified full version of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, while grossly overestimating Iraq’s military capability, was filled with extensive disagreements, doubts, and caveats regarding President Bush’s assertions regarding Iraq’s WMDs, WMD programs, and delivery systems.
The House and Senate members who now claim they were “misled” about Iraq’s alleged military threat fail to explain why they found the administration’s claims 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 not a single member of Congress has agreed to allow me any access to any documents they claim convinced them of the alleged Iraqi threat. In effect, they are using the infamous Nixon defense from the Watergate scandal that claims 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.
The Democrats who voted to support the war and rationalized for it by making false claims about Iraq’s WMD programs are responsible for allowing the Bush administration to get away with lying about Iraq’s alleged threat. For example, Bush has noted how “more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate who had access to the same intelligence voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.” In a speech attacking antiwar activists, Bush noted how “Many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: ‘When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security.'”
Indeed, the fact that 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry voted in favor of the resolution likely cost the Democrats the White House and, should Senator Clinton who claimed, in justification of her vote to authorize the invasion, that Iraq’s possession of such weapons was “not in doubt” and was “undisputed” get the nomination, it could also threaten the Democrats’ hopes for victory in 2008. Similarly, should Senator Dodd, Senator Biden, or former Senator Edwards who also made false claims about Iraqi WMDs get the nomination, it could have a similarly deleterious impact to the Democrats’ chances.
It’s also important to recognize that not everyone in Congress voted to authorize the invasion. There were the 21 Senate Democrats along with one Republican and one Independent who voted against the war resolution. And 126 of 207 House Democrats including presidential contender Dennis Kucinich voted against the resolution as well. In total, then, a majority of Democrats in Congress defied their leadership by saying no to war. This means that the Democrats who did support the war, despite being over-represented in leadership positions and among presidential contenders, were part of a pro-war minority and did not represent the mainstream of their party.
The resolution also claimed that “the risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States … or provide them to international terrorists who would do so… combine to justify action by the United States to defend itself.” In other words, those members of the House and Senate who supported this resolution believed, or claimed to believe, that an impoverished country, which had eliminated its stockpiles of banned weapons, destroyed its medium and long-range missiles, and eliminated its WMD programs more than a decade earlier, and had been suffering under the strictest international sanctions in world history for more than a dozen years, somehow threatened the national security of a superpower located more than 6,000 miles away. Furthermore, these members of Congress believed, or claimed to believe, that this supposed threat was so great that the United States had no choice but to launch an invasion of that country, overthrow its government, and place its people under military occupation in the name of “self-defense,” regardless of whether Iraq allowed inspectors back into the county to engage in unfettered inspections to prove that the WMDs, WMD programs and weapons systems no longer existed.
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, the members of Congress who voted to authorize the invasion were determined to make the case that the United States with the strongest military the world has ever known and thousands of 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.
This shows a frighteningly low threshold for effectively declaring war, especially given that in most cases these members of Congress had been informed by knowledgeable sources of the widespread human and material costs which would result from a U.S. invasion. It also indicates that they would likely be just as willing to send American forces off to another disastrous war again, also under false pretenses. Indeed, those who voted for the war demonstrated their belief that:
- the United States need not abide by its international legal obligations, including those prohibiting wars of aggression;
- claims by right-wing U.S. government officials and unreliable foreign exiles regarding a foreign government’s military capabilities are more trustworthy than independent arms control analysts and United Nations inspectors;
- concerns expressed by scholars and others knowledgeable of the likely reaction by the subjected population to a foreign conquest and the likely complications that would result should be ignored; and, faith should instead be placed on the occupation policies forcibly imposed on the population by a corrupt right-wing Republican administration.
As a result, support for the 2002 Iraq War resolution is not something that can simply be forgiven and forgotten.
Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.
Read more by Stephen Zunes
- ‘More AIPAC Than J Street’: Kamala Harris Runs to the Right on Foreign Policy – January 30th, 2019
- The Five Lamest Excuses for Hillary Clinton’s Vote to Invade Iraq – January 27th, 2016
- Republican Candidates Defend Killing Civilians To Fight Terrorism – and So Do Democrats – December 23rd, 2015
- The Troubling Implications of Hillary’s Anti-BDS Letter – July 13th, 2015
- How the US Contributed to Yemen’s Crisis – April 21st, 2015