Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden dishonestly suggested on Saturday that he had opposed the war in Iraq “from the very moment” it began in 2003 – even though Biden’s campaign said in September that he “misspoke” when he made a similar claim.
Biden was responding Saturday to a voter in Des Moines, Iowa, who told him, “I’m with you 90% of the way” but questioned his judgment in part because “you were for the second Gulf War, which was a mess.”
Biden said that “from the very moment” President George W. Bush launched his “shock and awe” military campaign, and “right after” that occurred, “I opposed what he was doing, and spoke to him.”
It’s false that Biden opposed the war from the moment Bush started it in March 2003. Biden repeatedly spoke in favor of the war both before and after it began.
Biden’s language on Saturday – saying he opposed “what he was doing” at the moment the war commenced – was more vague than his language in September, when he flatly said he had opposed “the war” at that moment. But the new version was highly misleading even under the most generous interpretation.
On both occasions – and on another occasion earlier this week – Biden created the impression that he had been against the war at a key moment when he was actually a vocal supporter.
What Biden said
When Biden has been asked in recent months about his past position on the war, his responses have been very similar.
He said Saturday – as he did at a Democratic debate in July, in an NPR interview in September, and to a New Hampshire editorial board on Monday – that he only voted in 2002 to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq because Bush had privately promised him that he was only trying to get weapons inspectors into the country. (Bush’s office denies that Bush said this.)
In July, Biden continued: “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’s September rendition to NPR was the most direct: “Before you know it, we had ‘shock and awe.’ Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war, at that moment.”
The Saturday version went like this: “The president then went ahead with ‘shock and awe,’ and right after that – and from the very moment he did that, right after that – I opposed what he was doing, and spoke to him.”
How the Biden team has explained
After journalists noted in September that it was false that Biden came out “against the war” right at its start, a campaign adviser, Antony Blinken, told The Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler that Biden “misspoke.” Biden himself acknowledged to New Hampshire voters that he had made a “misrepresentation.”
Blinken and Biden explained in September that Biden had been opposed to how Bush went to war and how Bush was carrying out the war.
“The extent to which I misspoke was – my public statements were that we were doing this all the wrong way,” Biden said at a September television event organized by Manchester, New Hampshire, television station WMUR, according to a WMUR article on the event. He also said, “The misrepresentation was how quickly I said I was immediately against the war. I was against the war internally and trying to put together coalitions to try change the way in which the war was conducted.”
Biden’s Saturday claim to have immediately opposed “what he was doing” was more ambiguous than the September claim to have immediately come out “against the war.” The campaign did not say he “misspoke” this time.
“The Vice President was referring to how he immediately opposed the specific way we went to war – without giving diplomacy and the weapons inspectors a chance to succeed, based on hyped intelligence, without sufficient allies and without a plan for the day after – and the manner in which the war was being carried out,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email. “He has taken responsibility for his vote for 15 years, calling it out as a mistake in 2005. And that mistake, together with the entirety of his long and distinguished record in national security and foreign policy, has informed his views ever since.”
Biden’s Saturday account included not even a hint of acknowledgment that he had actually supported the war. And given that the voter’s question was about his support for the war, Biden created an inaccurate impression by mentioning “shock and awe” and then immediately saying he opposed what Bush “was doing.”
If he meant he opposed particular aspects of Bush’s handling of the war rather than that he opposed the war itself, he could have specified.
Biden supported the war
As CNN’s KFILE team explained in detail, Biden did not oppose the war from the beginning. He repeatedly expressed support for the war as a Delaware senator – though he did, as the campaign said, criticize Bush for how he handled the diplomacy, the conduct of the war and the pre-war intelligence.
Biden did call his 2002 vote a “mistake” beginning in 2005. But he endorsed the invasion right before and after it occurred, did so again in public remarks later in 2003, and continued to argue into 2004 that the US should keep up the fight in Iraq.
You can read a detailed rundown of Biden’s comments about the war here. Since his repeated claim has centered upon the “moment” the war began, we’ll focus in this article on what he said as the war was starting.
Speaking on CNN on March 19, 2003, the day the war began, Biden acknowledged Democrats’ “frustration” with Bush’s diplomatic efforts but said, “I think it’s time we stop all that. We have one single focus. And that is, we’re about to send our women and men to war. The president is the commander-in-chief. We voted to give him the authority to wage that war. We should step back and be supportive.”