20 years later: Reflection and regret on 2002 Iraq war vote

FILE - U.S. President George W. Bush signs Resolution 114, authorizing the use of force against Iraq, at the White House Oct. 16, 2002, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow was sitting in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s conference room at the Pentagon, listening to him make the case that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

At some point in the presentation — one of many lawmaker briefings by President George W. Bush’s administration ahead of the October 2002 votes to authorize force in Iraq — military leaders showed an image of trucks in the country that they believed could be carrying weapons materials. But the case sounded thin, and Stabenow, then just a freshman senator, noticed the date on the photo was months old.

"There was not enough information to persuade me that they in fact had any connection with what happened on Sept. 11, or that there was justification to attack," Stabenow said in a recent interview, referring to the 2001 attacks that were one part of the Bush administration’s underlying argument for the Iraq invasion.

"I really thought about the young men and women that we would be sending into battle," she said. "I have a son and a daughter — would I vote to send them to war based on this evidence? In the end the answer for me was no."

As with many of her colleagues, Stabenow’s "nay" vote in the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 2002, didn’t come without political risk. The Bush administration and many of the Democrat’s swing-state constituents strongly believed that the United States should go to war in Iraq, and lawmakers knew that the House and Senate votes on whether to authorize force would be hugely consequential.

Indeed, the bipartisan votes in the House and Senate that month were a grave moment in American history that would reverberate for decades — the Bush administration’s central allegations of weapons programs eventually proved baseless, the Middle East was permanently altered and nearly 5,000 U.S. troops were killed in the war. Iraqi deaths are estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

Only now, 20 years after the Iraq invasion in March 2003, is Congress seriously considering walking it back, with a Senate vote expected this week to repeal the 2002 and 1991 authorizations of force against Iraq. Bipartisan supporters say the repeal is years overdue, with Saddam's regime long gone and Iraq now a strategic partner of the United States.

For senators who cast votes two decades ago, it is a full-circle moment that prompts a mixture of sadness, regret and reflection. Many consider it the hardest vote they ever took.

The vote was "premised on the biggest lie ever told in American history," said Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, then a House member who voted in favor of the war authorization. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that "all of us that voted for it probably are slow to admit" that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist. But he defends the vote based on what they knew then. "There was reason to be fearful" of Saddam and what he could have done if he did have the weapons, Grassley said.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, then a House member who was running for the Senate, says the war will have been worth it if Iraq succeeds in becoming a democracy.

"What can you say 20 years later?" Graham said this past week, reflecting on his own vote in favor. "Intelligence was faulty."

Another "yes" vote on the Senate floor that night was New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, now Senate majority leader. With the vote coming a year after Sept. 11 devastated his hometown, he says he believed then that the president deserved the benefit of the doubt when a nation is under attack.

"Of course, with the luxury of hindsight, it’s clear that the president bungled the war from start to finish and should not have ever been given that benefit," Schumer said in a statement. "Now, with the war firmly behind us, we’re one step closer to putting the war powers back where they belong — in the hands of Congress."

Twenty years later, support has flipped. Then, only 28 senators voted against the authorization. All but one were Democrats. Today, roughly the same number of senators are voting against nullifying the 2002 and 1991 measures, arguing that repeal could project weakness to U.S. enemies and hamper future operations. But all the opponents are Republicans.

Among those Republicans voting in favor of repeal is Grassley. He said withdrawing the war authorization would prevent those powers from being misinterpreted and abused in the future.

In 2002, the Bush administration worked aggressively to drum up support for invading Iraq by promoting what turned out to be false intelligence claims about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers attended briefing after briefing with military leaders and White House officials, in groups and in one-on-one conversations, as the administration applied political pressure on Democrats, in particular.

In the end, the vote was strongly bipartisan, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and others backing Bush’s request.

Joe Biden also voted in favor as a senator from Delaware, and now supports repealing it as president.

Other senior Democrats urged opposition. In one of many speeches on the Senate floor that invoked the country's history, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., urged his colleagues to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, where "nearly every day you will find someone at that wall weeping for a loved one, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, whose name is on that wall."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., issued a similar warning during the floor debate, saying he believed that anxiety and fear may be driving sentiment for an Iraq invasion. "I caution and beg my colleagues to think twice about that," Durbin said, adding that "America has faced periods of fear in its past."

Now the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Durbin recalled on the Senate floor earlier this month his vote against the resolution amid a "fearsome national debate" over whether the U.S. should invade Iraq. The threat of weapons of mass destruction "was beaten into our heads day after day," Durbin said. "But many of us were skeptical."

"I look back on it, as I am sure others do, as one of the most important votes that I ever cast," Durbin said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., agrees that at the time, "I remember thinking this is the most serious thing I can ever do."

She says the environment was charged with an "emotional pressure" in the public and in the media that the U.S. needed to show Iraq and the world that it was tough. She voted against the resolution after deciding there was not enough evidence to support the Bush administration’s argument, and after talking to many of her constituents at home who opposed the idea of an Iraq invasion.

For many lawmakers, the political pressure was intense. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, then a House member and now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he was "excoriated" at home for his "no" vote, after the Sept. 11 attacks had killed so many from his state. He made the right decision, he says, but "it was fraught with political challenges."

Similarly, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recalls that the idea of invading Iraq was popular at home, and the state’s other senator, Republican Gordon Smith, was supporting it, as were Daschle and other influential Democrats. But he was a new member of the intelligence committee, with regular access to closed-door briefings by administration officials. He wasn’t convinced by their arguments, and voted no.

"It was really a dramatic moment in American history," Wyden says. "You wish you could just unravel it and have another chance."

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., then a freshman senator who also voted against the resolution, says the war "made no sense strategically" and took the country’s focus off the troops waging war in Afghanistan. "Just absolutely bad strategy," he says, that also contributed to the buildup of other powerful countries like China and Russia.

For those who voted for the invasion, the reflection can be more difficult.

Hillary Clinton, a Democratic senator from New York at the time, was forced to defend her vote as she ran for president twice, and eventually called it a mistake and her "greatest regret." Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin solemnly told an Iowa PBS station several years ago that his vote in the Senate to authorize force in Iraq was "the worst vote I ever cast in my life."

Markey says "I regret relying upon" Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, along with other administration officials. "It was a mistake to rely upon the Bush administration for telling the truth," Markey said in a brief interview last week.

Graham says he spoke to Bush last week on an unrelated matter, but that they also discussed the war’s anniversary.

"I told him, ‘Mr. President, Iraq has not retreated from democracy,’" Graham said. "'It has been imperfect. But if at the end of the day, Saddam Hussein is eliminated and a democracy takes his place that can work with the United States, that is worth it. It turned out to be in America’s interest.'"

Bush’s reply was uncertain.

"He said he believes that history will judge whether or not Iraq can maintain its path to democracy," Graham said.

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