Joe Biden's Jumbled Iraq War Revisionism
“Yes, I did oppose the war before it began.” That was Joe Biden’s latest rendering of his position on the Iraq War, offered at a campaign event Sept. 6 in New Castle, N.H. Biden has been jumbling his history on the subject of late, suggesting that he opposed the war immediately after it started – a claim flatly contradicted by a large volume of his contemporaneous public statements from 2003. Of course, Biden also joined 28 Democratic colleagues in the Senate to vote for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the war. But this newest retelling of history now appears to extend his revisionism to the claim that he was somehow opposed to the war even before it was launched – which is also obviously false.
Hours before the invasion was launched, on March 19, 2003, Biden told CNN: “I support the president. I support the troops. We should make no distinction. … Let's get this war done.”
Not only did Biden avowedly support the war before it began, he furnished some of the key pro-war talking points that the Bush administration used to convince the country of the invasion’s legitimacy. The day of Colin Powell’s infamous speech at the United Nations Security Council – on Feb. 5, 2003 – Biden, then the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed reporters to praise Powell’s performance. “I think Secretary Powell made a very powerful, and I think irrefutable, case today,” Biden said. “… The evidence he produced confirms what I believe and I have known for some time now: Saddam Hussein continues to – he continues to attempt to maintain and garner additional weapons of mass destruction.”
“The case is overwhelming,” Biden said.
In that press conference, Biden predicted that the U.S. military will “‘initially be greeted in the region, and in Iraq, in a way that is close to being viewed as liberators” – the same formulation favored by Dick Cheney, who infamously went on “Meet the Press” days before the invasion to proclaim his belief that American soldiers would be “greeted as liberators.” Biden also posited that there was “cooperation” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, warning of an “emerging pattern” from Saddam Hussein that “may throw him into the arms of who our most central and most serious enemy is now, a non-state actor called al-Qaeda. So he must be dealt with. He must be dealt with.”
Biden went on to declare that the public should be ready for an extensive and costly “nation-building” and “occupation” project, and rejected any notion that the Bush administration’s logic for an invasion constituted “preemption” (which would have defied long-standing just-war theory). “If you turned on now and the television showed aircraft striking Baghdad,” Biden said, “it would not be a preemptive attack. There is nothing preemptive about it.”
Sixteen years later, Biden’s insistence that he was an early opponent of the war is increasingly absurd. He appears to contend that the tepid procedural complaints he voiced in 2002 and 2003 should be seen in hindsight as full-fledged opposition to the invasion. Asked at the New Hampshire event why he voted to authorize a war that he supposedly opposed, Biden told me: “I’m the guy that when we went in, and I said at the time, that we cannot in fact sustain doing this. We have to protect the troops, but we should get out.”
But again, the public record shows this to be false. In a speech on July 31, 2003, months after the invasion, Biden lauded “our spectacular military victory in Iraq” and rebuked fellow Democrats calling for a prompt withdrawal. “We can be put in the position where we decide we have to get out and lose Iraq. That's a very bad option.”
“Contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner rather than later,” Biden said during the speech. “So I commend the president. He was right to enforce the solemn commitments made by Saddam.”
In Biden’s present rendering of the 2002/2003 period, a September 2002 resolution he advocated with then-GOP Sen. Dick Lugar somehow reflected his staunch opposition to the war. (The resolution never went forward.)
At the New Hampshire event, Biden said: “If you look at what actually happened, Dick Lugar and I had a proposal to make it difficult for him to use force. And the reason why I went in is that, what happened was, the argument was, [Bush] needed – and I believed him and I was wrong, I was wrong – I believed him when he said he wasn't going to use force. It was just to get the Security Council to force inspectors in to see whether there was any nuclear activity going on with Saddam Hussein. And that’s what he did.”
But Bush never pledged to not “use force.” On Oct. 7, 2002 – just days before Biden voted for the Oct. 11 resolution titled “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq” – Bush declared that he was explicitly threatening military force against Iraq. “Saddam Hussein must disarm himself – or, for the sake of peace, we will lead a coalition to disarm him,” Bush said. “We will act with the full power of the United States military.”
When I reminded Biden that if he opposed the war all along, he could have joined 23 of his Senate colleagues in voting against authorizing it, he replied: “No, no, because they argued against authorizing the ability to get the United Nations to go back in with inspectors. We needed the Security Council to get a vote to put inspectors in to determine whether or not there was any nuclear activity going on.”
But that again is a mischaracterization of the argument against the 2002 resolution. Many of the senators who voted against the war authorization resolution simultaneously argued for the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who voted against the resolution, delivered a contemporaneous speech in which he declared: “A largely unilateral American war that is widely perceived in the Muslim world as untimely or unjust could worsen not lessen the threat of terrorism. War with Iraq before a genuine attempt at inspection and disarmament, or without genuine international support – could swell the ranks of al-Qaeda sympathizers and trigger an escalation in terrorist acts.” Kennedy added: “Before going to war again, we should seek to resume the inspections now.”
Additionally, the notion that Saddam Hussein had been in serious pursuit of nuclear weapons – one of the most grave charges leveled by the Bush administration to marshal support for the war – was already in extreme doubt during that period. But again, Biden gave crucial bipartisan credence to this alarmism.
It’s unclear whether the Delaware senator genuinely believes the tale he is currently telling, or if it’s the product of his apparent cognitive decline – which has resulted in all manner of statements where he fails to formulate coherent thoughts or recall basic facts. Likely it’s some combination of these factors. Either way, the real history of how one of the most disastrous foreign policy misadventures in U.S. history came about – and Biden’s key role in it – cannot be neglected as Biden seeks the presidency in 2020.