'A horrible vote': Congress revisits one of its gravest mistakes, the Iraq War
The Washington Post March 25, 2023
In 2002, while working at Rotary International, now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) watched congressional hearings and administration presentations making the argument for the Iraq War, never convinced that Saddam Hussein's forces posed a serious threat.
But two years later, she joined her unit from the Illinois Army National Guard during its tour of duty, becoming one of the first few women to pilot combat missions in Iraq. In 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade hit her Black Hawk helicopter. The crash ended with her losing both legs, earning her the Purple Heart.
The only senator who regularly uses a wheelchair, she doesn't think the 2002 war vote was the worst action taken by Congress this century. Instead, what is worse to her is the nearly 21 years of inaction after that vote, Congress's inability to debate and pass a new war resolution.
"Our troops show up, over and over and over again," Duckworth said in an interview Wednesday, "and we don't have the guts here to have a real debate and a real vote each time we want to send them."
More than two decades after that initial vote, Congress appears ready finally to scrap the 2002 Iraq War resolution - one of its most flawed votes ever.
In a rush to vote ahead of the 2002 midterm elections, lawmakers caved to the political pressure of the post-9/11 moment and granted the George W. Bush administration the authority to wage war in Iraq with little restraint.
This spring offers the rare chance at a do-over, with a bipartisan push in the Senate formally to rescind the 2002 resolution along with the 1991 war resolution passed after Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. The Senate is poised to pass its bill by Thursday, while the House, which voted in a broad bipartisan manner to repeal the 2002 resolution two years ago, could take it up later this spring.
For many veterans of those votes in October 2002, the change can't come soon enough. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was serving his fifth House term at the time he voted against the war resolution, sees endless effects from that consequential moment.
"It was a horrible vote," Menendez said Thursday while managing the floor debate on the Senate's repeal effort. "We made Iran a power that it wasn't before. We made al-Qaeda a franchise. It gave rise to ISIS, and we destabilized the region. It was one of the worst decisions that I have seen made in doing 31 years of foreign policy."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also is ready to jettison the war resolutions, formally known as authorizations for the use of military force, or AUMF. But Collins still blames top Bush administration officials for her initial vote, particularly then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who she said told her on the eve of the vote that with congressional approval, the United States would be able "to avoid war" and get Saddam Hussein to back down.
"The premise that there were weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a deeply flawed one," she said Thursday.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was in the House at the time, is the rare security hawk who still thinks that vote was worth it, particularly if Iraq's burgeoning government becomes a stable democracy.
"Here's what I would ask people to focus on," Graham said Thursday. "Is the world better off without Saddam Hussein, and are we better off with a democracy replacing him? I'd say yes."
The ripple effects from that vote continue to this day, most importantly with the loved ones of those who lost their lives (nearly 300,000 Iraqis and almost 5,000 U.S. personnel) but also with a region in disarray as Syria is ravaged by civil war and Iran continues its saber-rattling.
In terms of national politics and the congressional role in overseeing foreign affairs, the fallout has been stunning.
Democrats have watched those votes play out in every presidential election of the past 20 years, particularly in 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who wasn't in the Senate for the votes but spoke out against the 2002 AUMF, used the vote by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the war as a cudgel against her credibility, going on to narrowly defeat her in the primaries.
Republican voters - particularly those in rural areas that paid a higher price, with higher rates of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq than their urban counterparts - recoiled from the traditional national security image of the two Bush presidencies and embraced Donald Trump's "America First" approach. Most of the congressional GOP remains supportive of projecting U.S. power, particularly against Russia, but with every new election, the nativist wing grows a bit stronger.
And Congress's popularity has plummeted. In October 2002, Gallup found that 50 percent of Americans approved of Congress's performance, about where approval had been for the previous four years.
By spring 2005, as the war dragged on, approval of Congress fell below 40 percent and has not risen above that mark since. Last month, Gallup measured it at 18 percent.
The Senate's 2002 vote, 77 to 23, was not even close. All but one of 49 Republicans supported Bush's war resolution, and 28 of 51 Democrats voted with him.
Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been trying to work on an alternative resolution that would have forced the president to come back to Congress for a second vote to prove that Hussein was an imminent threat. His top adviser, future Secretary of State Antony Blinken, drafted it, while aides to the Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), worked on a more stringent resolution.
Denis McDonough, the future White House chief of staff for Obama and secretary of Veterans Affairs for Biden, coordinated the efforts as the top foreign policy adviser to the Senate minority leader, Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
But the House minority leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), cut a separate deal with Bush and his advisers, granting them most of their wishes. A week later, each chamber had to vote.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the most liberal members of the House at the time, says he saw his yes vote as a means of supporting United Nations weapons inspectors.
"They said that if they had the ability to have inspectors to go in - which is what the vote was - and they didn't find any weapons of mass destruction, they wouldn't start a war. So they lied on whether they would start a war," he said, adding, "Obviously, I apologize for that vote."
The House vote, 296 to 133, saw a majority of Democrats oppose the war resolution, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rallied the opposition against Gephardt and cemented her role as the dominant force in that caucus for the next two decades.
Many lawmakers heard what they wanted to hear, out of political fear and out of a desire to keep fighting terrorists after the 2001 attack on the United States. Clinton felt pressure as a New Yorker to look tough after the attacks there but privately told aides she wasn't comfortable.
"I can't believe I signed up for this f---ing war," she muttered to one senior aide at the time, according to "To Start a War," Robert Draper's definitive account of the rush to invade Iraq.
Menendez faced similar political pressures. About 750 New Jersey residents died in the attack at the World Trade Center, but as a junior House member, he studied the material and found the case unconvincing.
"No clear and present danger to the United States, no imminent threat and, above all, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction," he said. "We've come full circle, where I get to be the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and try to end it."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime member of the Intelligence Committee, said the doubts were there inside the classified reports made available to every member. Wyden got one piece of intelligence declassified the day before the vote, showing the conclusion that Hussein was not plotting any active terrorist actions against the United States.
Most senators had announced their positions already; the information made no difference. The march to war had been set in motion.
"You make a mistake on these big issues of going to war," Wyden said, "and the consequences will be felt for years to come. You don't unravel it easy."
In 2006, after recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Duckworth entered politics. She lost a race for a House seat, then served in the Obama administration's VA. She won a House race in 2012 and her Senate seat in 2016.
Now she finally has a chance to vote against the war that cost her so much, having watched the 2002 debate as a private citizen.
"I didn't see anything that was compelling to me that there were weapons of mass destruction," Duckworth said. "I didn't support the war."