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Next debate: Obama, Romney should be asked about the decision to invade Iraq

President Obama opposed the war; Mitt Romney has waffled on whether the war was justified.

Workers prepping the set of the final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Tonight is the presidential debate focused on foreign policy. I hope both candidates will be asked about their positions on the Iraq War. Not the boring old argument about whether a president should set a timetable for withdrawal or whether he must base it on the assessment of the “facts on the ground” by the “commanders in the field.” I’m talking about the decision to invade Iraq, which, as far as I can tell, was the biggest and worst and costliest foreign policy decision by any president in recent decades.

President Obama’s position was once quite famous, although it has mostly disappeared from the discussion. Mitt Romney’s position has shifted over time and has most recently settled into a newly revised non-position that is based on a refusal to acknowledge the key fact, which most of the country seems to have forgotten as well.

In October of 2002, Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator with aspirations to move up. He had lost a race for Congress in 2000 and wouldn’t be elected to the U.S. Senate until 2004. In October of 2002, President George W. Bush was massing the forces for the invasion of Iraq based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” (which Saddam had promised to destroy as a condition of the end of the previous 1991 U.S.-led war over Kuwait).

The obscure but ambitious young Illinois legislator gave a speech in Chicago’s Federal Plaza in which he came out firmly against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The full text is here. It’s a very good speech. When I waver about Obama as commander-in-chief, I come back to this speech and usually feel better about the basic soundness of his instincts on really big questions. I commend it to you.

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Obama said he didn’t oppose all wars, but he opposed “dumb wars,” and an invasion of Iraq would be a dumb war. Here’s a taste:

I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

When I first fell in love with that speech, when Obama ran for president in 2008, I thought it was braver and more unusual than it really was. In the presidential race, Obama was the only one among the top-tier Dem contenders who had opposed the war. His top rivals for the nomination, then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden and other senators seeking the presidency had all voted to authorize the war and his Republican opponent that fall, John McCain, was a major hawk. Only one senator who was up for re-election in 2002, our own Paul Wellstone, voted no, shortly before his death.

But Obama’s stand wasn’t as brave and lonely as all that. The Iraq resolution passed in the Senate by 77-23. Twenty-two of the 23 no votes came from Democrats, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, so opposing the war was not an act of political suicide. Still, what Obama said in his “no dumb wars” speech rings brave and true – even more true in retrospect — and, so far as I know, he has never wavered publicly on it, although he never seems to bring it up.

In 2002, Mitt Romney, who had previously lost a Senate race in Massachusetts to Ted Kennedy, completed his successful stewardship of the winter Olympics, ran for governor and won. He didn’t say much about the Iraq War, although when he did, he publicly supported everything that the Bush administration was saying and doing.

To be reasonable, it would have been astonishing if Romney had publicly criticized the Bush policies. Virtually no Republicans (other than Ron Paul) did and, as I just mentioned, more than half of the Democrats in the Senate supported the resolution authorizing the war.

The years went by. It became clearer and clearer that the Iraq War had been sold on false intelligence, that it wasn’t the cakewalk some neocons had promised, that we weren’t greeted as liberators, that it was longer and bloodier than expected, that it cost thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iraqi lives, that Iraq has not emerged as a model of democracy and peace for the region to follow, and that it is still difficult for the United States to withdraw because Iraq is in a seemingly permanent state of low-level civil war across sectarian and ethnic lines.

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As a presidential candidate in 2008, after most of the country had concluded that the war had been a mistake, or at least not worth the blood and treasure it was costing, Romney said in one debate:

It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now.

It was not well managed in the — after the takedown of Saddam Hussein and his military. That was done brilliantly, an extraordinary success. But in the years that followed, it was not well — we were undermanaged, underprepared, underplanned, understaffed, and then we come into the phase that we have now. The plan that President Bush and General Petraeus put together is working. It’s changing lives there.

But in the same 2008 cycle, Romney first adopted a falsehood that enables him to waffle on whether the war was justified. Here’s what he said in one of the Republican debates that cycle:

 Well, the question is kind of a non sequitur, if you will. And what I mean by that—or a null set—and that is that if you’re saying, let’s turn back the clock and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors and they’d come in and they’d found that there were no weapons of mass destruction—had Saddam Hussein therefore not violated United Nations resolutions—we wouldn’t be in the conflict we’re in. But he didn’t do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.

This cycle, he has tried the same double-finesse.

December, 2011, on Fox News Sunday, when asked whether, in hindsight, the invasion of Iraq was justified:

At that time, we didn’t have the knowledge that we have now. At that time, Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was not letting the inspectors from the United Nations into the various places that they wanted to go. The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] was blocked from going into the palaces and so forth. And the intelligence in our nation and other nations was that this tyrant had weapons of mass destruction.

And in the light of that — that belief, we took action which was appropriate at the time.

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So here’s the deal, which you have figured out by now. During most of the run-up to the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein had indeed given much less than full cooperation to the efforts by U.N. inspectors to figure out what kind of illegal weapons he possessed. Sometimes, he would let them in. Sometimes he wouldn’t. But when they were in, Saddam would require that they give advance notice of what sites they wanted to inspect and then delay letting the inspectors go there.

In retrospect, we can see that this policy was insane, suicidal really, presumably designed to give just enough cooperation to forestall military action, but enough non-cooperation for any reasonable skeptic to assume he was probably hiding something (like maybe illegal weapons).

But in the last period before the launch of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Saddam Hussein allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraq, allowed them to go wherever they wanted, with no advance notice. And they did. And they found nothing. And the chief inspector, Hans Blix, urged the United States not to start the war. And the inspectors stayed in Iraq, and kept looking everywhere they could think of to look, and kept finding nothing, until they had to be evacuated because the U.S. bombing was about to start.

I do not know what Romney has said or will say about his position that he supports the war, but the war would have been unnecessary if the U.N. inspectors were allowed into Iraq, even though they were allowed and found nothing.

I know there will be a lot of talk tonight about the killing of U.S. officials in Benghazi. This is part of Obama’s record, and the administration’s slowness and wavering in describing the incident are not nothing. But these issues, however hot and shiny, are nothing compared with the ability of a president or would-be president to figure out which wars are worth getting into and which are not.