A specter is haunting Hillary Clinton’s campaign: the specter of Iraq, specifically her Senate vote in 2002 giving President George W. Bush the authority to make war on Iraq. This vote was the main reason she lost the Democratic nomination, six years later, to Sen. Barack Obama. And now, eight years after that, Sen. Bernie Sanders hopes it will be one reason she loses the same contest to him.
At CNN’s Feb. 4 town hall in Derry, New Hampshire, Sanders described the vote, with good reason, as “the key foreign policy vote of modern American history.” Clinton, he suggested, came down on the wrong side of history; Sanders, who voted against a similar bill in the House (where he served at the time), chose the right side.
In response, Clinton acknowledged, as she has on previous occasions, that she’d made a mistake. But she also offered an explanation for her vote, something she has rarely done in the past. President Bush, she told the audience, had made a “very explicit appeal” that “getting this vote would be a strong piece of leverage in order to finish the inspections.” In other words, a resolution to use force would prod Saddam Hussein into readmitting U.N. inspectors, so they could continue their mission of verifying whether or not he had destroyed his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons sites. In other words, Clinton was now claiming she voted the way she did in the interests of diplomacy; the problem was that Bush went back on his word—he invaded before giving the inspectors enough time.
Listening to her rationale Wednesday night, I didn’t know whether she was telling the truth. I had written many Slate columns about the Iraq debate and the ensuing war, but I couldn’t remember the details of then-Sen. Clinton’s position. Looking up those details now, I have come to a conclusion about the rationale she recited at the New Hampshire town hall: Hillary was telling the truth.
This fact doesn’t vindicate her vote back in 2002—far from it. But it does take some of the sting out of Sanders’ attack. In short, her vote on Iraq, under the circumstances, should not be seen as the indicator of her stance or judgment on armed intervention generally.
The evidence is clear. On Oct. 10, 2002, during the Senate debate on a resolution to authorize the use of force in Iraq, Clinton rose to express her highly qualified support. First, though, she criticized the idea of attacking Saddam then and there, either alone or “with any allies we can muster.” Such a course, she said, “is fraught with danger,” in part because “it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us,” legitimizing invasions that Russia might launch against Georgia, India against Pakistan, or China against Taiwan.
“So,” she continued, “the question is, how do we do our best to both diffuse the threat Saddam Hussein poses to his people, the region, including Israel, and the United States—and, at the same time, work to maximize our international support and strengthen the United Nations.”
She went on to say that there was “no perfect approach to this thorny dilemma” and that “people of good faith and high intelligence can reach diametrically opposing conclusions.” But, she concluded, “I believe the best course is to go to the United Nations for a strong resolution” that calls “for complete, unlimited inspections with cooperation expected and demanded” from Saddam.
“If we get the resolution the president seeks, and Saddam complies,” Clinton added, “disarmament can proceed and the threat can be eliminated. … If we get the resolution and Saddam does not comply, we can attack him with far more support and legitimacy than we would have otherwise.” This international support is “crucial,” she added, because, “after shots are fired and bombs are dropped, not all consequences are predictable.”
Then came, from today’s vantage, the key passage: “Even though the resolution before the Senate is not as strong as I would like in requiring the diplomatic route first … I take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a United Nations resolution and seek to avoid war, if possible. Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely and war less likely—and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause—I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation. If we were to defeat this resolution or pass it with only a few Democrats, I am concerned that those who want to pretend this problem will go away with delay will oppose any United Nations resolution calling for unrestricted inspections.”
She added, “This is a difficult vote. This is probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make. Any vote that may lead to war should be hard, but I cast it with conviction. … My vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of preemption or for unilateralism or for the arrogance of American power or purpose.” A vote for the resolution, she argued, “is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our president. And we say to him: Use these powers wisely and as a last resort.”
In retrospect, of course, these final words seem the height of naïveté. Bush did take the resolution as “a vote to rush to war.” And, of course, it turned out that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction or even an active WMD program—though it’s worth recalling that almost everyone, including many opponents of the war, believed he did. (Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies in the Pentagon cherry-picked the intelligence that seemingly supported that conclusion, but it’s clear in retrospect that even they believed Iraq had WMDs, even if the CIA, which they distrusted, was having a hard time locating them.)
Some context is needed to understand Clinton’s position in this debate. In September 2002, one month before Congress passed the resolution, Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman and ranking Republican member, respectively—drafted an alternative bill, authorizing the use of force only after Bush made a stronger case that Saddam possessed WMDs.
As George Packer reported in the New Yorker at the time, Biden and Lugar were close to rallying enough co-sponsors, on both sides of the aisle, to assure a win—when Bush persuaded Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Democratic minority leader, to present a bill giving Bush far wider, less restrictive authority. Bush assured Biden and Lugar that he would seek the U.N. resolution—and come through with the harder evidence—that they wanted.* It was under these assurances that Clinton voted in favor of the Bush-inspired resolution—as did 76 other senators, including, significantly, Biden and Lugar.
The day before Clinton’s speech, Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, proposed another alternative, requiring Bush to secure a U.N. resolution on using force against Iraq before so much as asking for congressional authority.
In her speech, Clinton dismissed this idea, noting that at least two members of the Security Council—she meant Russia and China—“might never approve force against Saddam Hussein until he has actually used chemical, biological or, God forbid, nuclear weapons.” Levin’s amendment did contain a clause allowing Bush to present the matter to Congress if the Security Council failed to act. But the vast majority of the Senate agreed with Clinton: The council would fail to act; Levin was proposing a mere delaying tactic and an evasion of the real issues. (Soon after, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin confirmed this skepticism, proclaiming that France would veto any U.N. resolution that called for using force against Iraq under any circumstances.)
In retrospect, the Levin amendment looks pretty good. Delay, even gratuitous delay, would have been the wise course. Not invading at all—some believed at the time, and nearly everyone sees now—would have been the best course of all. (For the record, I briefly supported the use of force in one column, after Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case before the U.N. Security Council, a column I regret writing—but I changed my mind two weeks before the invasion and remained opposed to the war throughout its duration.)
But here too Clinton was hardly alone in her lapse of judgment and her excess of trust in Bush’s word. Just as Gephardt’s resolution on the use of force passed the Senate 77–23, Levin’s amendment was defeated 24–75, with no votes cast not just by Clinton but also, again, Biden and Lugar.
It’s fair speculation how Clinton would have done in 2008, had she come out and explained the story behind her vote for the war and the extent of her ambivalence. Obama won the Democratic nomination largely on the contrast between her support for, and his opposition to, what turned out to be America’s most colossal blunder since Vietnam—and the direct cause, or at least a major accelerant, of the most virulent problems we face in the Middle East today.
Clinton’s electoral blunder, eight years ago, was her reticence to admit error of any sort—and her stiff-necked refusal to express regret for the consequences. Her more recent acknowledgements and apologies don’t redeem her checkered legacy or fully address the uncertainties about how she would handle a similar crisis from inside the White House. But in weighing her qualifications to be commander-in-chief, against those of Bernie Sanders, her simple yes and no votes of October 2002 should not be the determining factor.*
Correction, Feb. 4, 2016: This article originally misidentified Rep. Richard Gephardt as a senator and the Democratic majority leader. He was the House minority leader. (Return.)
Correction, Feb. 5, 2016: This article originally misstated that Hillary Clinton’s vote on the Iraq war took place in March 2002. It took place in October 2002. (Return.)