Did Congress “Vote For The War”?

November 29, 2007

Or was their intention simply to show Saddam that “we mean business”? (or something to that effect) 

This element of the popular talking points in today’s political discourse has always bothered and confused me.   I bring it up now because -as we turn the corner and head into the home stretch toward the ’08 presidential election- it is likely to be brought up more and more, especially with regard to Hillary Clinton.   This is also a bit of a followup post to the one I penned yesterday, as this topic is suddenly thrust to the forefront.    For the record, I’m not writing this post as an attempt to defend Clinton’s (or anyone in Congress, for that matter) vote, or her or the former president’s comments on the decision afterward.   Instead, this entry is designed to help clarify my thoughts on the matter and open up a discussion that doesn’t attempt to rewrite history, rather, to explore and reflect on what actually took place.

First, I think that the most important thing to point out that a vote for the October 2002 AUMF against Iraq was not an explicit declaration of war, at least not as it was written.   I did some searching, and Ron Paul summarized it fairly well when he voiced his concerns on the House floor on October 8th of that year (two days before the House passed it):

But I am very interested also in the process that we are pursuing. This is not a resolution to declare war. We know that. This is a resolution that does something much different. This resolution transfers the responsibility, the authority, and the power of the Congress to the President so he can declare war when and if he wants to. He has not even indicated that he wants to go to war or has to go to war; but he will make the full decision, not the Congress, not the people through the Congress of this country in that manner.

However, wording aside, this has always been the $60,000 question:  Can those who voted “yea” say that they didn’t consider the invasion to be a forgone conclusion (at least with a straight face)?  I mean, has Congress passed AUMF’s in that didn’t result in some military action?  Did the majority really have any other expectation?

The popular defense of the vote that came from the Democrats (especially) has always been that the resolution was intended to provide the leverage needed to put Saddam in a situation where he had no other choice but to comply with UN resolutions and allow the inspectors back in.  In fact, at the time that the resolution passed, there is evidence that there were those in Congress who believed that the AUMF was the best hope in avoiding war:

Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, said giving Bush the authority to attack Iraq could avert war by demonstrating the United States is willing to confront Saddam over his obligations to the United Nations.

“I believe we have an obligation to protect the United States by preventing him from getting these weapons and either using them himself or passing them or their components on to terrorists who share his destructive intent,” said Gephardt, who helped draft the measure.

In other words, the best way to disarm Iraq without military action was to use the inspectors, and it appears that the consensus at the time was that Saddam wouldn’t allow the inspectors back in without knowing that the threat of force was real.  Also, I think its fair to say that Congress wouldn’t have passed an AUMF unless the it contained language specifying that all diplomatic options towards enforcing UN resolutions (which called for inspectors) had been “exhausted”.  

One problem that Paul and others had with the resolution was the fact that the AUMF gave the president sole power to decide when those options were deemed “exhausted”.   So, again,  what it comes down to was whether or not the members of Congress believed that Bush was predisposed to invade, and if they were comfortable with that predisposition.  

But did the administration give any indication that he was?   On October 16th, the day he signed the resolution, Bush said things like this:

…”I hope the use of force will not become necessary”….


…”Hopefully this can be done peacefully. Hopefully we can do this without any military action”…

Of course, that’s what was said publicly. 

However, later on, the evidence that Bush was being disingenuous about this began to surface, culminating with the infamous Downing Street Memo:

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

So, did Congress (or at least, a percentage of the yeas) unwittingly give Bush the green light to commence a war that he had already decided to undertake?  The puzzle pieces seem to fit.  Bush wasn’t going to war without an AUMF, and Congress wasn’t going to approve an AUMF unless it called for diplomacy first.  So, if Bush wanted war, all he had to do is make sure that the resolution was worded in such a way that gave him the power to declare when the diplomacy had failed.  As it turned out, that appears to be precisely the wording that Congress approved in October 2002.   So, inspectors went in long enough to perhaps give the appearance that there was a legitimate effort to pursue a diplomatic solution and impose the UN resolutions, but it looks like Bush had decided at some point that March ’03 was the right time to “give up” and pull the proverbial trigger. 

Needless to say, it’s a little disturbing to think that Bush didn’t really care if the inspectors actually found anything, but perhaps it really was just part of the dog and pony show to sell the war.

What’s also pretty unsettling is the fact that members of Congress didn’t seem to have a coherent view on what they were voting on.  Some obviously saw it as essentially a war declaration, while others saw it as simply a means of granting leverage.  Still others, like Paul, objected to it as a violation of the Constitution in principle.

It could very well be that this resolution passed because too many members made the mistake of trusting the president.   It would be interesting to know how many of those who voted for the AUMF honestly felt the way Gephardt did, and assumed that their vote was actually a necessary step toward a peaceful solution.  We’ll probably never have a full account of what all these people were thinking privately, unfortunately.   Part of the problem is that the public isn’t really seeing this for what it was because the facts and rhetoric are blurred by politicians who are trying to balance a reasonable explanation for their position with the desire to avoid having their name and words like “unwittingly” mentioned in the same sentence (not to mention the pundits who have an interest in saving face as well).  This dynamic would certainly explain why there are statements that lead to accusations of “flip-flopping” on the issue permeating the political discourse and the media for so long, as well as the fact that the whole thing is debated… even five years later

So, did members of Congress “vote for the war”?  I guess it would depend on which one of them you ask (or, perhaps which pundit you’re listening to).   Technically, however, I think that Paul was right, in that they ultimately voted to let Bush decide.

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  1. interesting post. Even if the Democrats were sort of “tricked” by the wording of the resolution, isn’t it their job to detect such B.S.? Perhaps back then, with the political climate still being sympathetic to a president who presided over 9/11 did create a more lax atmosphere, i don’t know if that makes it ok to just give a sort of blanket O.k. to a president. i hope you post more like this, its very informative.

  2. I think it’s important to remember the pulse of America back then. People seemed to be divided into two groups. Those who were saying, “Hell yeah! Let’s kick their asses!”
    And those who were saying, “There’s no way in hell he’d do it…”
    Congress dropped the ball, the media dropped the ball, and Bush got his wish. I think it’s safe to say we’re all guilty for this mess.

  3. Congress played the ultimate coward card. The US has not declared war on anyone since 1941. The Presidential powers bit has waged a number of wars / combat actions since then. All of those had Congress on the sidelines but at least more active than they have been here. They play it every way they can. I voted for the war. I voted to send a message. I didn’t vote for the war but I voted the $$$ to support the troops. The stink doesn’t stick to Bush because Congress abdicated it’s responsibilities.

  4. kip- You’re right in that the post-9/11 atmosphere played a big role in this. In fact, 9/11 is mentioned several times in the resolution itself:

    Whereas the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 underscored the gravity of the threat posed by the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by international terrorist organizations;

    It’s hard to believe that very many people would have signed on to it on 9/10, that’s for sure. Certainly the administration exploited this dynamic when making its case. Logically, however, I don’t think there was anything about 9/11 that made Saddam any more of a threat than he was on 9/10 (which was a subject of a previous post of mine, incidentally). I think there was also an element of this view that a vote against the resolution was an exercise in shunning the president at a time when everyone was rallying around him, and that such a vote was considered unpatriotic (and politically dangerous). Paul’s speech represents a rare example of level-headed thinking in this climate, and I think he should be given a good deal of credit for it.

  5. All I remember is they started giving us live ammo and MOPP suits… next thing you know I sweated off 20 lbs and woke up one day with the best “farmers tan” you’ve ever seen!

  6. I think the million dollar question is how anyone in his or her right mind could believe, that Saddam was indeed out to get WMDs. And that believe would be the only justification for the above resolution, one way or the other.

    Noone outside the US, Aznar, Blair and Howard aside, did believe that kind of BS, since it was pretty obvious, that a country under constant siege since 1991 could do nothing of that sort.

    So the only choice for those honorable politicians is to be too stupid or ignorant to gather some independant intelligence or they simply wanted to suck up to Bush and the hysteric public opinion of the times.

  7. abaris- The UNSC passed resolution 1441 unanimously, so there was a broad sense in the international community that Saddam presented a problem that had to be dealt with. And from what I’ve read on the discovery of Iraqi documents recovered after the invasion, Saddam did indeed wish to reconstitute his weapons program once the sanctions were relaxed. In the meantime, he wanted the world to think that he could have WMD’s as a deterrence to his enemies. He was basically engaging in a balancing act.

  8. Chen, the European news coverage was a little different at the times. There was a broad consensus, that Bush and his lapdog Powell were producing BS. Agreeing to the resolution was perceived and published as a try to stop the war although most media columnists were in agreement, that they were fighting a losing battle and Bush wanted his war no matter what.

    And I remember vividly a bunch of high ranking European politicians being rather open about their personal opinion. One of them the (then) German foreign minister Fischer telling Rumsfeld at a meeting “you didn’t make the case” in front of the press. And the German minister of defense, in agreement with the French minister of foreign affairs, saying, that their services had no intelligence whatsoever of Saddam posing a threat.

    Also it would do some good to have a look at Powells infamous farce at the UN in the february of 2003. Noone believed in what he was presenting and it turned out, he didn’t believe it either.

    I don’t know how this has been reported in the US, but millions of Europeans took the streets, days before the war started – partly – as in Spain, Italy or the UK, against the outspoken plans of their governments. These were the largest demonstrations Europe has seen since the end of WWII.

  9. abaris- Fair enough, but the question at hand is really whether the members of Congress knew that they were voting for certain invasion. In the US media, I’ve seen arguments both ways on this recently, namely because of Bill Clinton’s comments (see previous thread).

  10. I’m just even more disgusted after seeing footage tonight on 60 Minutes in which U.S. troops were discussing the bodies they used to see during constant fighting between and killing of Iraqi Christians by militants. People who used to get along with their Muslim neighbors for over a thousand years in the region. I realize that many died senselessly under Saddam, as is constantly argued, but not like this, not this madness with our soldiers’ hands tied not even able to do anything. Some peace we brought!

    Honestly, I’ve known plenty about what has happened, this should not shock me, not another report from 60 Minutes, but somehow it just really did. Bush claimed to be such a “true Christian”, yet his decisions lead to the slaughter of so many innocents and persecution of Christians right there in Iraq that his admin. will do nothing about, just as they’ve done nothing about any of the atrocities they’ve wrought. It’s just all washing over me all over again I suppose, and reading this post just hammered it further home.

  11. And that’s why I was comparing Iraq with former Yugoslavia in one of my last posts over at FB.

    The situation is similiar. The different ehtnicities lived together – not because there was any love lost between them, but because a strong hand was keeping them all down. And that for centuries – in the case of Iraq, since it was a conglomerate of three Osmanic provinces. The primary mistake of the US plan was to not take into consideration with what they had to deal. They always looked at Iraq as a nation, which it has never been. It’s a construct from the colonial age.

    And again. This information has been readily available before the war, since military experts and political scientists warned about opening the kettle.

  12. […] Also see my post: Did Congress “Vote For The War”? […]

  13. Very well written and thought out post.

    The American population, in general, is extremely fickle and has a very short memory. It has become too expedient to cast around for someone to place blame on when the going gets tough, rather than stick to your guns.

    Congress, including Hillary Clinton, handed President Bush the power to declare war in Iraq. Anyone with any sense should have see what was coming. If you cut through the bull, what the democratic Congress is saying is that they did not know what they voted for. Could they have been that naive, or simply stupid? Neither reflects well upon them.

    The American people, on the whole, initially supported Bush’s action. However, once they learned the war would last longer than a few weeks, they also felt the need to place blame … but, hey, that has become the American way. Quick … pass the buck … accept no responsibility for your actions … Americans will forget … they always do!

    Even Hurricane Katrina has been blamed on George W. Bush. I wish I had the power to control the weather as well. It would be like … Dude! Bow to me!

  14. […] the AUMF was meant as leverage to force Saddam to comply with U.N. disarmament resolutions, and not a green light for invasion.  Indeed, Congress wouldn’t have granted an AUMF under other conditions, and the […]

  15. Really interesting read. Honest!

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