The Democratic presidential frontrunner, in explaining his 2002 vote to authorize military force in Iraq, told NPR in an interview that aired on Tuesday that, “Immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.”
Biden gave a similar explanation at CNN’s presidential debate in July, saying he made a “bad judgment” for trusting President George W. Bush “saying he was only doing this to get inspectors in and get the UN to agree to put inspectors in.”
“From the moment ‘shock and awe’ started, from that moment I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and the administration,” Biden said.
But a review of Biden’s public statements about Iraq in the lead up to the invasion shows he was never entirely opposed to military action against Saddam Hussein, and Biden continued to defend his vote to authorize the war in the months after the US military campaign began.
“Nine months ago, I voted with my colleagues to give the president of the United States of America the authority to use force and I would vote that way again today. It was the right vote then and would be a correct vote today,” Biden said in a July 2003 speech at the Brookings Institution.
Of the 20 Democrats still running for president in 2020, only two – Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – were in a position to vote on authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq back in 2002.
Sanders, then in the House, voted no. Biden, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voted in favor – and like other Democrats who voted yes, has spent the years since apologizing for it as the conflict became increasingly unpopular with the American public and Democratic voters.
Biden, the Democratic front-runner, now faces opponents who do not have a voting record on Iraq and a Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, who too initially supported the Iraq war before turning against it, and then increasingly criticized Republican Party orthodoxy about American intervention abroad during his 2016 presidential campaign.
The Iraq issue dogged John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008, when it contributed to Barack Obama’s meteoric rise, and again in 2016, when Sanders and Trump used it as a cudgel against her. Biden, who also ran in 2008, made the same claims that he’s making today: He changed his mind about the invasion as soon as it happened.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, told CNN the former vice president worked in “good faith” during the lead up to war to get UN weapons inspectors into Iraq and avert an invasion.
“His good faith was not reciprocated and even once inspections were back on track the Bush administration plunged the nation into war,” Bates told CNN. “As he has long said, his vote was a mistake.”
Early support for action in Iraq
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Biden said he was open to military action in Iraq as part of the new global war on terror. By November of 2001 and in early 2002, Biden would say he believed the war with Iraq was inevitable and the War on Terror could not be won without regime change in Iraq.
At nearly every step of the way, Biden did urge an inclusive, middle-of-the-road approach that was reflective of his Senate career. He frequently called to involve other world powers and at times criticized the Bush administration for not making a coherent case for war.
But even when delivering those comments, Biden would say the US should be prepared to act without the support of the international community.
An immediate invasion of Iraq, Biden said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2001, was “not the prudent approach.” A case needed to be made, he said, for international support.
The same day, he told Charlie Rose that he felt the US could lead an international coalition – but didn’t necessarily need to wait for allies to take action.
“I think if we do this well – and we’re capable of doing it – we can essentially tighten the noose around Saddam Hussein’s neck,” he said. “So that when he does genuinely step out of line next time, we will either have the ability to move in with or without others, but with the support of the rest of the world, like we’re doing now in Afghanistan.”
Biden told CNN’s Larry King in December 2001 that he believed the US would eventually go to Iraq.
“I think that eventually we go to Iraq, but my view, Larry, is the question is how we go to Iraq,” Biden said. “Do we go to Iraq unilaterally without having built a case against Saddam, either having been involved in 9-11 or having violated tighter sanctions that we – that we designed that tighten the noose on him?”
“And I think the latter enhances our prospects much greater than the former,” he continued. “If we move unilaterally, we may very well find we have trouble keeping everybody with us even in Afghanistan.”
Biden himself began laying out the steps to get international support for American military action in Iraq by February of 2002.
In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Biden said the US would need “to end the regime one way or another” and it would be “downright foolish” to believe the War on Terror could be won if Hussein was still in power in five years.
Russia, he said, could be won over to support regime change by guaranteeing that they would not lose oil contracts in a post-Hussein Iraq. At the same time, Biden dismissed engaging Hussein by lifting sanctions and said encouraging a coup would not work.
Instead, he proposed making the case to the international community for “smarter sanctions,” adding that if that did not work, American military force could be used with or without help from allies.
“And then if you do not have any response from Saddam as a consequence of that, then be very straightforward about it,” Biden continued. “Like Woody Hayes, ‘here we come and what are you going to do about it?’ Literally begin to amass force and literally with or without the help of our allies. Anything other than their goodwill —- use American force.”
Attempts at compromise
As the debate raged in the Senate over whether to grant the Bush administration the authority to invade Iraq, Biden offered a middle ground that bridged the conflicting proposals.
One plan, supported by anti-war senators and championed by former Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, would have required UN approval for the administration to take military action. Biden voted against the Levin proposal but offered a compromise solution with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in October 2002 that would have required greater congressional approval for Bush’s ability to invade Iraq.
The Biden-Lugar plan would have limited the scope of any military action against Iraq to destroying potential weapons of mass destruction, and would also have required Bush to seek approval from the United Nations. If the UN would not grant approval, the Bush administration would have to make a case before Congress that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat only military intervention could eliminate.
“Our draft resolution obliged the White House to report its diplomatic progress at the United Nations to Congress and to make a hard case that Saddam’s weapons were a ‘grave threat’ to the United States if he intended to go to war without the U.N.’s support,” Biden wrote in his 2007 book “Promises to Keep.”
The Bush administration rejected Biden-Lugar and Biden’s compromise efforts eventually fell apart without ever coming up for a vote.
After reassurance from Bush that he would continue to pursue diplomacy to allow weapons inspectors into Iraq, Biden ultimately voted for the administration’s proposal, and said that a vote against it would lead to war.
Biden commended Bush in a speech on the Senate floor before his vote, saying, “at each pivotal moment, he has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation.”
“I do not believe this is a rush to war,” Biden said in his speech. “I believe it is a march to peace and security. I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur.”
Tony Blinken, who served as staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Biden, and later as his national security adviser in the White House, defended Biden’s actions as pushing for tougher diplomacy in an interview with CNN.
“The authorization vote was not a vote to go to war,” he said. “It was a vote for tough diplomacy to give the United States the strongest possible hand at the United Nations to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq and it succeeded. And despite that success, despite achieving its stated purpose, the administration continued on the path to war anyway.”
Support for more diplomacy
In early January 2003, ahead of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council, Biden said war with Iraq appeared near inevitable.
“We’ve kind of reached the point of almost no return,” Biden said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to give it more time.”
Biden publicly reinforced claims that Powell’s speech would contain “evidence now that can change people’s minds” on Iraq.
“I know there’s enough circumstantial evidence that if this were a jury trial, I could convict you,” Biden said.
Biden also began making the case the Bush administration had not properly communicated with the American people the cost of the war or rationale for it.
“Let everyone here be absolutely clear,” he said in a speech to the New Castle Chamber of Commerce in February 2003. “I supported the resolution to go to war. I am not opposed to war to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. I am not opposed to war to remove Saddam from those weapons if it comes to that.”
“To sustain any foreign policy – especially when it comes to war – it is absolutely essential that the American people be completely and thoroughly informed as to what to expect or they will lose their resolve quickly,” he added.
And as war appeared near-certain, he began calling for additional diplomacy to secure international backing – though not because he thought it would avoid war, but because it would help American standing.
Writing in the Washington Post in early March of 2003, Biden called for a second United Nations resolution on Iraq.
“Saddam Hussein is relentlessly pursuing weapons of mass destruction, abusing his own people and making a mockery of the United Nations,” Biden wrote. “With or without a second U.N. resolution, and barring a coup or last-minute conversion by Hussein, the United States will act to disarm him. But we will be infinitely better off if we act with the United Nations and with as many friends as possible – not in spite of them.”
Support for the invasion
In March 2003, with war looming on the horizon, Biden accepted the inevitability of military action and expressed his support of the war.
Three days before the war, on March 17, Biden put out a press release, saying that, “The President has concluded that the time for diplomacy is over and the time for action is at hand. Many Americans are concerned about how we got to this point and the lost opportunities along the way. But if we go to war in Iraq, we must all unite behind our men and women in uniform. I’m confident of their extraordinary skill and ultimate success.”
Biden continued, “By refusing to disarm, a defiant Saddam has made the fateful choice between war and peace. Let us make sure that in winning the war, we also win the peace.”
During a March 19 appearance on CNN, hours before the United States launched its invasion, Biden acknowledged his previous critique of the administration for not pursuing a diplomatic solution, but endorsed the war nonetheless.
“There’s a lot of us who voted for giving the president the authority to take down Saddam Hussein if he didn’t disarm,” Biden said, “And there are those who believe, at the end of the day, even though it wasn’t handled all that well, we still have to take him down.”
Biden went on to urge Democrats to unite with Republicans behind Bush and the military.
“I support the president. I support the troops. We should make no distinction. We should have one voice going out to the whole world that we’re together,” Biden said. “We should be on the floor of the United States Senate and every capital in the world hear one voice from both parties, saying, we support the troops. We support the president.”
Defends his vote and turn against the war
Biden began criticizing the Bush administration on Iraq by summer 2003, saying it had hyped the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to build the case for war and that it had not appropriately communicated to the American people the cost of the war.
“They took a truth and they embellished it,” Biden said in June. “What I’m accusing them of doing is hyping it. They created a false sense of urgency.’
Still, Biden continued to defend his vote to authorize the war saying Hussein had to be dealt with, but criticized the Bush administration’s diplomatic approach.
“Some of my own party have said that it was a mistake to go to Iraq in the first place and believe that it’s not worth the cost, whatever benefit may flow from our engagement in Iraq,” Biden said in a July 2003 speech at the Brookings Institution. “But the cost of not acting against Saddam I think would have been much greater and so will be the cost of not finishing this job.”
By 2004, Biden sharpened his criticism of the Bush administration but remained convinced the U.S. could succeed in Iraq.
“What this administration did at every level is take the absolute worst possible case scenario given to it by the CIA and any other intelligence agency and stated it as if it were fact,” he said on CNN in February 2004.
“I’m convinced that we can still succeed if we level with the American people about the costs and the risks if we develop a coherent plan for success,” Biden said in an April speech on Iraq.
Biden also praised the pro-war, neo-conservatives in the Bush administration though he said they pursued military action under flawed reasoning.
“This administration is full of exceedingly bright, patriotic, and well-meaning people. And I’m not being gratuitous,” he said. “I’m stating the obvious, particularly the neo-conservatives in this administration among the brightest, most articulate people in the country, but they began this undertaking in my view, with one fundamentally flawed assumption. And that is that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States of America.”
By November of 2005, Biden acknowledged on Meet the Press that his vote was a mistake.
“It was a mistake,” Biden said. “It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly.”
“I never argued that there was an imminent threat,” he added. “We gave the president the authority to unite the world to isolate Saddam. And the fact of the matter is, we went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan.”
By 2007, in Biden’s last run for the presidency, he largely avoided talking about his vote to authorize the war with then-front runner Hillary Clinton on the receiving end of liberal criticism for her vote. Instead of talking about how the war started, Biden routinely spoke of how he would end it, proposing the federalization of Iraq into three autonomous regions.
In an interview with CNN’s John King, however, Biden said his vote in 2002 was not a vote for military action.
“Everybody looks at it now, and says, we voted to go to war,” Biden said. “It was not a vote to go to war. It was a vote to give the authority to the president to avoid war by keeping the pressure on Saddam Hussein. The president misused the power.”