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Minnesota senators’ ‘No’ votes on Iraq War — and other 10th anniversary thoughts

I discovered that my two Iraq War pieces last week did not exhaust the facts, ideas and arguments worth raising on the 10th anniversary of the war.

A U.S. Bradley armored vehicle goes past a street named after President George W. Bush at an army base in Tikrit, about 110 miles northwest of Baghdad, in 2003.
REUTERS/Arko Datta

With apologies, I discovered that my two Iraq War pieces last week did not exhaust the facts, ideas and arguments worth raising on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war (the actual 10-year mark for the first day of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign that launched the war is Wednesday). A couple of other matters possibly worth remembering:

Minnesotans and the war vote

Several months before the bombing began, President Bush asked for and received congressional authorization to take military action against Iraq, unilaterally if necessary, whenever he considered it necessary, and without requiring U.N. authorization.

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It tends to be remembered as a more overwhelming and bipartisan vote than it was. Although almost every congressional Republican voted aye, the majority of House Democrats (126-81) vote against it and a substantial minority of Senate Dems (22 out of 51) also voted no. Minnesota was one of just six states that contributed two “no” votes and, given subsequent events, it might be worth mentioning who cast them.

Paul Wellstone was up for re-election when he voted no on the resolution. The vote was on Oct. 11, 2002, less than a month before Election Day and Wellstone was locked in a tight race with Republican Norm Coleman, who strongly supported Bush and the war. It was Wellstone’s last gutty liberal vote. The plane crash was precisely two weeks later.

The other Minnesota senator who voted no was Mark Dayton who, as you may have noticed, is now our governor. When I had occasion to ask Dayton about his single generally undistingushed Senate term during which he was famously miserable, he immediately brought up that vote, which I take to be the proudest one he cast.

By the way, all of the Democrats then in the Senate who harbored clear presidential ambitions voted in favor of the resolution. These “yes” voters included Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

Barack Obama, who was not then a U.S. senator but was an Illinois state senator, did not, of course, vote, but spoke against the Iraq war just days before the Senate voted.

In the House, the vote was closer and the majority of Dems voted no. Five of the eight Minnesotans voted aye.

Three Minnesota Democrats voted against the war resolution: Betty McCollum, Jim Oberstar and Martin Sabo.

All three Minnesota Republicans then in the House delegation voted aye: Gil Gutknecht, Mark Kennedy and Jim Ramstad.

Two Minnesota Democrats voted aye: Bill Luther, Collin Peterson.

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Only one Republican senator (Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island) and only six House Republicans voted no. Notably, one of them was Ron Paul.

The Iraq resolution did not literally declare (and Congress has never since declared) that a state of war existed between the United States and Iraq. A constitutional stickler might insist on such a declaration. The original constitutional understanding, spelled out fairly clearly in the Constitution, is that while the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, only Congress has the power “to declare war” (Article I, Section 8).

In fact, Congress has not literally declared a war in those explicit terms since World War II (and then not until after the attack on Pearl Harbor).

But the case of Iraq was closer to complying with the Constitution than most of the dozens of foreign military actions since World War II. The resolution authorized the president to use armed force against Iraq “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

By the way, at the time of the congressional vote, Wellstone did not particularly doubt that Saddam possessed chemical weapons in violation of U.N. resolutions ordering him to destroy them. His stated reason for voting no was that he didn’t believe the United States should start the war without U.N. authorization.

The lack of a U.N. resolution

In the aftermath of World War II, when the U.N. was created and its charter written, the beautiful dream was that war would henceforward be subject to international law. Countries were prohibited from starting or joining a war unless they were either under attack (in which they had the right to defend themselves) or unless the war was authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

The dream didn’t last long. Only twice has the U.N. ever authorized a war under these provisions (and under U.S. leadership in both cases). The U.N. authorized a collective military action of U.N. members to expel the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950, and (more relevant to our overall discuss here) it authorized the U.S.-led (under the first President Bush) military action in 1990 to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait (which Saddam had decided to annex).

Unfortunately, the second U.S. attack on Iraq was one of many to violate the U.N. Charter. The second President Bush went to some lengths to justify Operation Iraqi Freedom as a mechanism to enforce the U.N. resolutions adopted after the first Iraq War ordering Saddam to destroy his stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and to submit to U.N. inspections to prove that he had done so. Saddam had, in fact, destroyed his stockpiles, but his cooperation with the inspections was spotty and he eventually stopped cooperating.

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The Bush administration relied heavily on Saddam’s flouting of U.N. inspections as justification for the second war. And the U.N. passed several resolutions suggesting/threatening consequences if Saddam continued to play games of partial cooperation. But the U.S. war was not authorized by the United Nations and therefore was itself, in some sense, a violation of the U.N. charter and international law. Bush had hoped and tried to get U.N. authorization. But — especially after Saddam resumed giving the U.N. inspectors full cooperation and after the chief arms U.N. inspector, Hans Blix, said that if he could have another month or so he believed he could settle the question of whether Saddam had any chemical, biological or nuclear arms — there was little chance of Bush getting U.N. sanction for the war during what the U.S. military considered the optimal fighting season.

An aside: Because the Cold War settled in so quickly after World War II, there probably never was a period when the United States and the Soviet Union could agree on an authorization for war (and both countries had permanent membership and veto power on the Security Council). This undermined the basic idea of how the U.N. was going to handle its war-authorizing power. But in the last days before Bush gave the signal to start the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign, not only Russia and China but also France publicly opposed starting the war. (This caused Congress to order that, in the congressional cafeterias, “french fries” be renamed “freedom fries.” Seriously.)

So, in the end, Bush violated the U.N. Charter to start a war that was based on Iraq’s alleged violation of U.N. resolutions.

Franken and Klobuchar

Neither of Minnesota’s two current U.S. senators was in office in 2002 when the resolution came up nor in 2003 when the war began. Both Amy Klobuchar (who won her Senate seat in 2oo6) and Al Franken (2008) ran as critics of the war against Republicans (U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy and Sen. Norm Coleman, respectively) who were staunch and unwavering supporters of the Iraq war.

Franken’s situation was complicated because, although he made his opposition to the war a centerpiece of his campaign, he was a lukewarm supporter of the war at the time it began. He has said several times that he trusted Secretary of State Colin Powell, who made a presentation to the U.N. asserting that the evidence of banned weapons was overwhelming. Franken didn’t yet have his daily radio program, but he was on TV a lot and had written Bush-bashing books and had begun making USO visits to entertain the troops so he was asked publicly about the war several times in 2003-04. He never said that the war was a mistake in the first place. His comments were laced with ambivalence. I catalogued a great many of the statements in my coverage of his Senate campaign.

It was not until October of 2005, after the first post-Saddam election had been held and the Iraqis had just ratified a draft Constitution, that he made the first statement in which he clearly said both that the war had been a mistake in the first place and that he had supported it in the beginning: Here’s the quote from the “Today” show:

FRANKEN: “Boy, I don’t know. We — we have blown — first of all, we shouldn’t have gone in. We went in and I was — I supported it at the time because I believed Colin Powell, and I believed Judy Miller and I believed the administration, for some reason. We bungled it going in. We have had political — you know, when we turned over the interim government, gave them sovereignty, things are supposed to get better? They got worse. When we had the elections, the first set of elections and that was very inspiring, things have gotten worse since then. There —there needs to be two fronts here and one front ain’t going so good.”

By 2008, running against Coleman, who was almost unwavering in his support for not only the decision to go to war but for most of the strategic and tactical management of the war, Franken was much more emphatic and unambiguous a critic. As in:

FRANKEN: “Knowing everything we know now. We’ve had over 4,100 troops die. We have had tens of thousands wounded. We have hurt our national security. We’ve hurt our standing in the world. We’ve empowered Iran. We’ve recruited jihadists all over the world. We’ve brought Al Qaida into Iraq. We have taken our eye off the mission in Afghanistan. We have made Israel more vulnerable. How could you think this was anything but an enormous blunder?”

Amy Klobuchar in 2003 was Hennepin County attorney and not required by that job to take a position on issues of war, peace or foreign policy, even as she contemplated making a run for statewide office. (A lot of earlier speculation had her running for attorney general.) I am unaware of anything she may have said on the public record about the Iraq war before she emerged as a Senate candidate in 2005. Like Coleman, her opponent U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy had supported the war in advance (in fact, he had voted to authorize it) and was unflinching about his continuing support for the mission. Klobuchar asserted that she had been against the war from the beginning. As a candidate, although she moved around a bit on how quick a schedule or how firm a deadline, she favored a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops and has been supportive of those poilicies as a senator.

More on the blood and treasure spent

In the lively (and, as usual, much-appreciated) comment thread in my previous posts, I was taken moderately to task for passing along the highest of the many estimates of deaths associated with the war (around 1 million). It is indeed much disputed and I don’t vouch for it as anything other than an estimate. It was also noted in the thread that many of the Iraqi war dead were not killed by U.S. troops or bombs but from the many-sided warfare that broke out and continues to this day.

That is definitely true. But it was the U.S. policy to “let slip the dogs of war” in Iraq and our nation must accept its proper share of the responsibility for all those that the dogs devoured. The United States has invaded, bombed and “regime changed” a great many countries since the last time we were literally invaded (War of 1812). It is hard for us to imagine how it feels or how much — if the fighting and dying was still occurring 10 years later — we would attribute our miseries to the original invasion.

As for the monetary cost to U.S. taxpayers for the war, I cited an admittedly high estimate of $3 trillion made by economist Joseph Stiglitz, and acknowledged that it was the high end of known estimates and included long-term effects on the U.S. economy. By chance, the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University just Thursday released updated estimates of both the monetary and human cost of the war.  According to a Reuters piece on the Watson Institute calculations:

“The U.S. war in in Iraq has cost $1.7 trillion with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades counting interest” and “The war has killed at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians and may have contributed to the deaths of as many as four times that number.”

Yes, Saddam was a butcher

It’s also true, as Vin Weber said in day two of the series, that Saddam was a mass murderer of historic proportions. And it’s reasonable to assume that some Iraqis, whom Saddam would have butchered for his own reasons, are alive today because of the U.S. decision to effect “regime change” in Iraq. As much as I view the war as an epic disaster, it would be wrong and incomplete not to remind everyone of how richly Saddam deserved his ignominious capture (in a “spider hole”), his ultimate conviction and execution, and his nickname as the Butcher of Baghdad.

I suppose that Weber’s assertion that Saddam had killed a million Iraqis during his rule was also a rough estimate and perhaps from the high side. I certainly agree that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein ruling any nation. Rooting around in the old Strib clips I produced during the run-up to the war, I find these excerpts:

[Saddam Hussein] used torture, execution and extraordinarily cruel interrogation methods such as raping the wife or sister of a detainee in order to extract a confession. He tolerated no opposition, and his legend is filled with cases — many verified by international human rights groups — in which Saddam had whole families killed because one member made a disrespectful remark about the leader.

When Saddam’s Baath Party first came to power, he was only vice president and head of security services but:

He soon emerged as the real power behind the throne. Employing sham trials, confessions extracted by torture, executions and assassinations, Saddam eliminated all political rivals…

One charming practice during this period: After executing a political opponent, the regime would send the family members an invoice demanding that they reimburse the government for the bullets used…

In 1979, Saddam made his real status official and ascended to the presidency…. Five days after becoming president, Saddam conducted a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council. In a style reminiscent of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, he called forth party members and offered them opportunities to confess that they had participated in treasonous plots against the nation and its leadership. The process went on for days, as Saddam compiled a list of traitors to be executed. Saddam himself, and the remaining members of the Council – including many who had been forced to confess but whose lives were spared – formed the firing squad. But here’s perhaps the most amazing thing. Saddam arranged to have the whole proceeding videotaped, and he distributed copies to the surviving party members lest there be any doubt what would happen to those who displeased him.