The Senate will mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq this week by voting to repeal the outdated authorization of military force that greenlighted the war, a bipartisan effort to formally conclude a badly misguided conflict America is still paying for today.
Nineteen Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to advance its repeal on Thursday, a largely symbolic move that advocates say is designed to reassert Congress’s authority to declare war. Yet it leaves untouched the broad 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) that every presidential administration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has used to wage war across the globe.
There is broad agreement in Congress and among the public that bad intelligence led to President George W. Bush’s decision to begin airstrikes on Iraq on March 19, 2003, and that it resulted in the loss of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and trillions of wasted U.S. dollars.
But there are still some Republican senators who argue that good things came out of the war and that the whole enterprise was ultimately worth it. That view is not shared by more recent GOP arrivals in Congress, however, reflecting a changed party under former President Donald Trump that is increasingly questioning U.S. involvement abroad, including in Ukraine.
The original vote to authorize the war, 77-23, followed a months-long campaign by the Bush administration to sell the public on its decision to invade Iraq, which was made in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Administration officials used false and faulty intelligence to claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including biological, chemical and possibly nuclear weapons, at the ready.
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in August 2002. “There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”
In the days before Congress passed the war authorization resolution, Bush himself raised the specter of nuclear annihilation and falsely insinuated that Iraq was connected to the 9/11 attacks by discussing the supposed links between Hussein’s government and al Qaeda. Iraq played no role in the 9/11 attack. United Nations weapons inspectors could not find any evidence of ongoing WMD programs prior to the invasion. Later, the U.S. found no usable biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, nor any ongoing program to develop them.
But these lies and insinuations convinced much of the American public. On the eve of the congressional vote, 79% of the public said they believed Hussein was close to having or already had nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, 66% believed that Iraq “helped the terrorists in the September 11th attacks.” In total, 62% supported the invasion.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this popular support, the Bush administration deeply politicized congressional passage of the resolution. They made sure to push it in the final weeks of the 2002 midterm elections in order to force Democrats to take a public position prior to Election Day while running ads targeting them as weak on terrorism or even possible traitors.
Most Democrats in the Senate voted for the resolution, which had been introduced jointly by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Bombing Iraq was a bipartisan project that George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton took part in, after all, from the senior Bush’s Gulf War in 1991 to Bill Clinton’s 1998 strikes. Many also feared being on the wrong side of a war vote, as they also were on the 1991 Gulf War resolution.
HuffPost interviewed more than a dozen U.S. senators ― some of whom were in Congress on Oct. 11, 2002, when the vote to authorize force against Iraq occurred. Read their views about the war and its justification below:
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.)
Was it a correct decision to invade?
With all of the information that we had, yes. I was a brand-new governor, I hadn’t even been sworn in yet, but I had been elected. And I remember [Health and Human Services Secretary] Tommy Thompson at that point came and visited us and told us about the concerns they had and about the biological weapons they believed were in [Saddam’s] hands. At that point it was not a matter of will we have a loss of life, it was a matter of how much or how great a loss of life might be. It was a very sobering time. Based on the information we had at that time I thought it was the right decision…. Those biological weapons have never been found, but if they would have been, it would have been a clearly justified war.
To this day, there are unanswered questions about the intelligence assessments. I think we need to judge members’ votes and decisions by the administration to commit forces based on what the intelligence told them at the time, not what we know now.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Everyone believed at the time based on the intelligence being provided there were weapons of mass destruction. That was the justification for the war. It got rid of a terrible dictator. Obviously it left behind an Iraq that has struggled. But I think the real question is, if we knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war with Iraq? The answer is probably not. But I don’t believe the people who argued for the war lied about it. I wasn’t here, but my recollection is based on the information they had before them, they honestly believed there was. It wasn’t like Saddam Hussein was being transparent and doing everything possible to prove that he didn’t. He was noncompliant on all sorts of U.N. and international requirements. I certainly think its had an impact on our politics. I think the use of force in the future would probably be more skepticism and more caution given that experience. But I would imagine there’s a lot of people in Iraq that are happy that Saddam Hussein isn’t in charge anymore.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)
I feel like a lot of good has come out of that war, a lot of bad still continues to be there in terms of how destabilized it is, how much Iran is playing a role in there, so we certainly didn’t accomplish our objectives. The circumstances that led up to the administration deciding to go there were ones that predated me, so I’m not going to Monday-morning quarterback.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.)
In hindsight, coaching the next day, no it wasn’t the right thing to do, we all know that. A lot of people got killed, we lost a lot of money and we were there a long time. We can’t seem to get in and get out. We should have been made whole by the oil that they had there. Spent a lot of money, and I lost a lot of friends over there, too.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah)
I think the benefit of hindsight is we were in error to have gone in and anticipated that we could create a liberal democracy in Iraq, and I feel the same way about Afghanistan. I think we’ve learned that people have to fight for their own freedom and that we can’t give it to them on a platter covered with blood.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
[The U.S. invaded Iraq to] get rid of a bad guy. I’m glad we did.
[Repealing the Iraq war authorization] is a good symbolism of ending that war. I’m disappointed we can’t end the Afghan war, which has also been going on for 15 years. [Paul is referring to his support for repealing the 2001 AUMF that continues to authorize military force in Afghanistan.]
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
The information that was used to go into Iraq seems to have been faulty. But here’s what I would say: It’s a fledgling, inefficient democracy. That’s better than Saddam. The world is better off with Saddam dead, and with all the struggles with democracy in Iraq, we’re better off with democracy taking foot in Iraq. We still have soldiers there, and so from a big picture, I think the world is always better off when democracies replace dictatorships.
I think the effort to argue with 20 years of hindsight that we were justified in going into Iraq is preposterous. It’s one of the most catastrophic unforced foreign policy errors in the history of our country or frankly any other country.
It was the beginning of putting those kinds of ordeals on our credit card. What we gained from it, it looks like you risk a lot and don’t gain much. For as much treasure and life was lost there… it’s clear you lose a lot in lives once you get involved on the ground, you spend a lot of money doing it.
Doing all that seems like [it’s] probably going to be hard to measure net gain. When you do it, there ought to be something you could easily say, hey, we’re better off for it. That’s probably difficult.
I really appreciate the service men and women that stepped up. It’s been 20 years since I went to Iraq and Kuwait. So I’m greatly appreciative of their service and just hope we can see gaining stability in that region. The threat of Iran is very real, and Iraq is an important part of that.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)
I remember Secretary [Colin] Powell calling me the night before the vote and helping to persuade me in supporting the authorization for the use of military force. He was not alone in believing there were weapons of mass destruction, but obviously that turned out to be greatly overstated.
Do you regret voting for the war?
My recollection is we were misled by the administration at the time. George W. Bush and I were governors together, during that time. I think what happened there was a disservice and in retrospect tragic.
The war was one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes of an administration in Congress in our history. I was lieutenant governor of Virginia when they were debating the war, and I remember why were they forcing this before a midterm election… the administration decided, ‘Oh, good, we could do this and enhance our chances in a midterm election.’ I just had this gut feeling there’s got to be a better way to make decisions.
Republicans I know say it led to Iran being a lot more powerful than it had otherwise been. Saddam was a bad guy, but Saddam was a check against Iran, and the vacuum it created in Iraq emboldened Iran and also led, as vacuums do, to the growth of groups like ISIS. I think most people, if it was a secret vote right now, if they could go back and have Saddam there and Iran less powerful and an ISIS that was never born, you’d probably have a 100-0 vote on that.