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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/22/2012 - 11:50 am.


    Right or wrong the Iraq war cost American lives and thousands more wounded. It is irrelevant to this debate as is the Vietnam war. It was politicians who decided to get into and out of both wars not the US military. I talked to a former LBJ adviser a few years ago and after a visit to Vietnam he advised LBJ to get out even though Gen Westmoreland said the war was winnable.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/22/2012 - 12:05 pm.

    Romney is like buying a “Pig in a Poke”

    Mr. Romney does not have a core. He is for it before he is against it and vice versa. He is running an elect me first and then I will tell you what I’m for campaign. I’m utterly amazed 1/2 the country is falling for his non-answers on nearly everything. It will be interesting to see how mister foreign policy expert will do tonight. He can’t even visit our friends without ticking them off. The Republicans don’t like their candidate, by their own admission, and yet they will vote for him. It is all part of the nonsensical Republican philosophy, which has not changed from what George W. Bush was doing. Voters, Mr. Romney is not to be trusted. The choice is yours in November.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/22/2012 - 12:51 pm.

      Tom, I trust Mr Romney completely.

      I trust him to be the person he has been his whole life: a soulless man in an empty suit. His only interest is in further financializing the nation and the world so that more of the social wealth will flow into the pockets of the financializers. The world is not a place where moral guidance is searched and consequences on people are considered; it is a game of Monopoly where concepts of right and wrong do not operate. Without a moral compass and without an interest in governing, Mr Romney has simply regathered the advisors of his most recent Republican predecessor (I can’t remember his name) and will outsource foreign policy, once again, to that fine group. We know his foreign policy (and its domestic consequences) because we experienced it for eight years.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/22/2012 - 12:05 pm.

    Great idea

    Since Axelrod is deploying the same, exact excuse for the loss of our Ambassador and his security detail that Rove used to explain the absence of WMD (bad intel) I highly encourage this line of questioning.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/22/2012 - 12:48 pm.

      Yes, exactly the same: a multi-month orchestrated prelude to a war on false premises and an attack that was made on a relatively spontaneous basis.


      “There isn’t any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance,” a U.S. intelligence official said. “The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

      (end quote)

      Keep that logic going, Mr. Swift!!!

    • Submitted by David LaPorte on 10/22/2012 - 03:51 pm.

      Respecting those who served

      Mr. Swift:

      I would like to think that no one would use either of these tragedies as a political “Got cha'”. That would be disrespectful of those who died or were wounded.

      Of course, someone probably will. Such is the state of political discourse in our society.


  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/22/2012 - 12:19 pm.

    The correlation to the present situation with Iran should be obvious. Why should the threshold for war be moved to the “possibility” of an event or achievement?

    It is clear now that the the basis of the war in Iraq rested in a great deal on the manipulations of a minor character code-named “Curveball” who was already known to be a BS’er by US and European intelligence agencies. He served as a useful tool for those whose interests lie in war.

    We lay ourselves open to the same sort of manipulation again.

    Fissionable material is not the same as high-grade fissionable material, which is not the same as a weapon, which is not the same as a deliverable weapon. The US is operating blind again, in an area of the world where the US should have spent decades of building up intelligence networks.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/22/2012 - 01:28 pm.

    An instructive moment could be had if the moderator asked which specific groups in Libya, Egypt, Syria, etc, should receive support from the US.

    A moment of embarrassed silence should follow.

    Who knows?

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/22/2012 - 09:16 pm.

    iraq came up or did it ?

    Deception is still not called deception. I further would have hoped that a discussion about a mitt cabinet that would have some of the same neocons that gave us Iraq

  7. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/22/2012 - 09:29 pm.

    Perhaps the escalated war in Afghanistan could be mentioned

    President Obama poured the troops into Afghanistan apparently because of “reason” and “principle”, while this war has also cost thousands of American lives, millions of dollars, the country has not emerged as a model of democracy and peace, and it will be difficult to withdraw from because it is in a seemingly permanent state of low-level civil war across sectarian and ethnic lines. And the decision is less than four years old, made by one of those in the debate.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2012 - 09:33 am.

      Let’s qualify this

      Troops were already in Afghanistan when Obama took office.
      The 9/11 attack was based in Afghanistan.
      Bush had relocated our main emphasis to Iraq to look for Weapons of Mass Distraction.
      Obama simply returned his focus to the source of our main threat — the location from which the continental United States was attacked.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/23/2012 - 09:17 pm.

        But you agree with the rest

        As long as the President does then we’re all in agreement. I am glad that there are no longer anti-war protesters in the news and there are no longer daily body counts, embedded reporters, etc. Four more years!

  8. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/23/2012 - 10:50 am.


    There were plenty of signs that the Iraq war was bogus. The act that sealed it for me was when Bush pulled out the U.N. security advisers who were investigating WMD in Iraq before their work was done, and soon declared war.
    Even the NYTimes fell for it. Or at least one reporter did. There really was plenty of other information around that this was a war that should never be started–and certainly, that more time should be taken to determine the existence of WMD.
    All that spelled dissembling–lying–to me.

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