Twice in the last five weeks, Joe Biden has claimed that despite voting to authorize military force against Iraq in 2002, he opposed the Iraq war from “the moment” it began. That’s not accurate, and Biden now says he misspoke.
The public position taken in the lead-up to and early days of the Iraq war has been a litmus test for many presidential candidates.
Sen. Bernie Sanders proudly boasts about his vote — while serving as a member of the House in late 2002 — against authorizing use of military force against Iraq. While running for president, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that he publicly opposed the Iraq war before the March 19, 2003, invasion, though we looked into it and could find no evidence that he ever did.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the authorization vote was cast, Biden was at the forefront of the debate about what course to pursue with Iraq. As a result, he was also frequently quoted in the press and spoke numerous times from the Senate floor, providing ample evidence of his position over time.
Biden was a consistent critic of the way the Bush administration handled the war: Its failure to exhaust diplomatic solutions, its failure to enlist a more robust group of allies for the war effort, and the lack of a plan for reconstruction of Iraq. Some of his comments proved to be quite prescient, including his warnings about the likely higher-than-expected cost and length of the war, and the complexity of “winning the peace” once Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.
But Biden never outright opposed military action in Iraq in the immediate days after the start of the invasion, as he claimed. He now admits his recent comments went too far.
Biden’s Iraq Comments in 2019
During the second Democratic primary debate on July 31, Biden said his “bad judgment” in voting to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq in 2002 was “trusting the president saying he was only doing this to get inspectors in and get the U.N. to agree to put inspectors in.”
In a speech days before the 2002 vote, Bush did say approving the resolution “does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable,” but he also laid out in detail why military action “may” be needed. And on the day the war broke out, Biden acknowledged, “We voted to give him the authority to wage that war. We should step back and be supportive.”
In the Democratic debate, Biden went on to say, “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.”
During an interview on NPR on Sept. 3, Biden again claimed, “Immediately, the moment [shock and awe] started, I came out against the war at that moment.”
Biden, Sept. 3: I let my record stand. I think my record has been good. I think the vast majority of the foreign policy community thinks it’s been very good. For example, I got a commitment from President Bush he was not going to go to war in Iraq. He looked me in the eye in the Oval Office; he said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program. He got them in, and before we know it, we had a shock and awe. Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment. Now, the judgment of my trusting the president to keep his word on something like that, that was a mistake. And I apologize for that.
Last month, when we reached out to the Biden campaign after Biden’s debate comment, a spokesman pointed us to comments Biden made the day before the war began and the day after. In those comments forwarded by the campaign, Biden lamented that the administration had not taken more steps toward a diplomatic solution, and warned of the need for a plan to “win the peace” after fighting ended.
But Biden wasn’t against using military action against Iraq to force Iraq to give up weapons of mass destruction (which, as it turned out, it did not have).
The day the war commenced, Biden told CNN: “There’s a lot of us who voted for giving the president the authority to take down Saddam Hussein if he didn’t disarm. And there are those who believe, at the end of the day, even though it wasn’t handled all that well, we still have to take him down.”
During a TV interview taped for WMUR in New Hampshire on Sept. 7, Biden acknowledged that he “misspoke” in the debate and that “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 said he “argued that the way we went to war was wrong, number one. And number two, the way we were conducting the war was wrong.”
The Biden campaign also provided a statement to the Washington Post acknowledging that “Vice President Biden misspoke by saying that he declared his opposition to the war immediately.”
“He opposed the way we went to war and the way the war was being carried out,” the statement continued. “He has for many years called his vote a mistake and takes full responsibility for it. The Bush Administration assured then-Senator Biden that the purpose of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force was to strengthen our position at the U.N. Security Council to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and that diplomacy would be exhausted without a premature rush to war. The U.N. element of this strategy worked: after Congress passed the AUMF, the Security Council voted 15-0 to send the inspectors back and Saddam gave them access. However, the Bush Administration plunged the nation into war anyway, without allowing the inspectors to finish their job — which was profoundly misguided. Once the war began, then-Senator Biden was immediately clear in his opposition to how we got into the conflict and the way it was being conducted — including the failure to exhaust diplomacy or enlist allies, the reliance on and hyping of faulty intelligence, and the absence of a viable plan to win the peace. He was adamant that, however misguided the war, we owed it to our troops to support them, and he fought for investments like MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] that saved hundreds of lives from IEDs.”
Given the issue’s likely prominence in the campaign, we think it’s instructive to review some of the background and Biden’s public statements at several critical junctures.
Leading Up to the Vote
In a speech to the nation several days before Congress’ authorization of force vote and five months before the start of the war, the president detailed the case against Iraq, arguing that the country had violated the requirements of the truce that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to “destroy its weapons of mass destruction, to cease all development of such weapons, and to stop all support for terrorist groups.” He also said Hussein was pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. All of that posed a threat to the U.S., Bush warned.
“Some believe we can address this danger by simply resuming the old approach to inspections, and applying diplomatic and economic pressure,” Bush said. “Yet this is precisely what the world has tried to do since 1991.” And, he said, those methods failed.
Bush, Oct. 7, 2002: After eleven years during which we have tried containment, sanctions, inspections, even selected military action, the end result is that Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons and is increasing his capabilities to make more. And he is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon.
Although Bush called for new, tougher inspections and sanctions, he also made clear that war was an option.
“The time for denying, deceiving, and delaying has come to an end,” Bush said. “Saddam Hussein must disarm himself — or, for the sake of peace, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”
“I hope this will not require military action, but it may,” Bush said.
Biden’s Speech Prior to Vote
Three days later, just prior to the vote to authorize military force, Biden gave a lengthy speech from the floor of the Senate and explained why he would vote for the resolution (beginning on S10290).
Biden said he viewed the resolution not as a “rush to war,” as some of his Democratic colleagues alleged, but rather a “march to peace and security.”
“I believe passage of this, with strong support, is very likely to enhance the prospects that the secretary of state will get a strong resolution out of the [United Nations] Security Council,” Biden said.
Biden added that the resolution would increase the probability the U.N. would get inspectors into Iraq to do meaningful investigations of its weapons program.
“I will vote for this because we should be compelling Iraq to make good on its obligations to the United Nations,” Biden said. “Because while Iraq’s illegal weapons of mass destruction program do not — do not — pose an imminent threat to our national security, in my view, they will, if left unfettered. And because a strong vote in Congress, as I said, increases the prospect for a tough, new U.N. resolution on weapons of mass destruction, it is likely to get weapons inspectors in, which, in turn, decreases the prospects of war, in my view.”
Biden seized on this statement in Bush’s address to the nation: “Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable.”
Biden praised Bush for choosing, up to that point, “a course of moderation and deliberation” and noted that Bush promised that any military action would be “with allies at our side.” Biden said the resolution emphasized “the importance of international support, manifested through the United Nations Security Council.”
Though Biden pushed forcefully for a wider international response, he was not opposed to military action, if necessary.
“Ultimately, either those weapons must be dislodged from Iraq, or Saddam must be dislodged from power,” Biden said.
It’s true, as Biden has said recently, that he saw the resolution as a means to compel Iraq to allow weapons inspectors back in.
Biden, Oct. 10, 2002: Concerning Iraq, our first step should be the one the president apparently has chosen: to get the weapons inspectors back into Iraq. … I agree with President Bush that given a new mandate and the authority to go any place, any time, with no advance warning, U.N. inspections can work. They can succeed in discovering and destroying much of Saddam’s chemical and biological arsenals and his missile program. They can delay and derail his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and, at the very least, they will give us a clearer picture of what Saddam has, force him to focus on hiding his weapons and not building more, and it will buy us time to build a strong coalition to act if he refuses to disarm.
Biden argued the resolution “would finally force Saddam to face the choice between inspectors and invaders … and there is at least a chance that he might make the right choice.”
Biden also warned that the cost of a war would be much higher than most Americans believed, and that reconstruction of Iraq would be difficult, costly and likely take a decade — comments that seem prescient given how events unfolded. But again, Biden said he was not opposed to military action if diplomacy failed.
“There is also a chance Saddam will once again miscalculate, that he will misjudge our resolve, and in that event we must be prepared to use force with others if we can, and alone if we must,” Biden said.
On Nov. 8, 2002, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, which stated that Iraq was “in material breach of its obligations” regarding its disarmament agreements following the Persian Gulf War, and accused Iraq of failing to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The resolution offered Hussein “a final opportunity to comply with [Iraq’s] disarmament obligations” and set up “an enhanced inspection regime with the aim of bringing to full and verified completion the disarmament process.” The resolution gave Iraq 30 days to provide a complete declaration of “all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems.”
Biden hailed the move as “an important victory for American diplomacy,” and he praised Bush for “forging an international consensus on Saddam’s obligation to disarm.”
“By going through the United Nations, we have gained critical international support if it becomes necessary to use force to disarm Saddam,” Biden said.
In early 2003, the Bush administration began pushing for a second U.N. resolution setting a deadline for Hussein and authorizing military force if necessary to get Hussein to disarm. But the resolution was met with resistance from several key members, including France, Germany, Russia and China.
In a speech before the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “The facts on Iraqis’ behavior … demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort — no effort — to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts on … Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.” He then laid out the case for that assertion based on U.S. intelligence.
In an interview hours after Powell’s speech, Biden appeared on CNN and was asked, “Did Secretary of State Powell today close the deal in your mind to those who at least have an open mind about the situation in Iraq?”
“Absolutely,” Biden said. “He made a compelling case. The predominance of the evidence, the pure weight of the evidence, I think anyone. … Let me put it this way, if I were back practicing law I can’t imagine I could not convince an open-minded jury of the facts that he presented as having been true.”
Biden insisted, however, that “we may be a step closer to peace. … The ball, as they say, is in Saddam’s court. … The security council’s on the line here. They’re either going to prove they are relevant or irrelevant, because I don’t think any open-minded person could argue that Saddam is not in material breach of the U.N. resolution 1441.”
Biden argued in a Washington Post op-ed on March 10, 2003, that the U.S. ought to seek a second U.N. resolution giving Iraq “more time for Iraq to meet specific disarmament demands” but also getting a commitment from the U.N. to use force if Iraq failed to meet deadlines.
Bush ultimately made the decision to go to war with Iraq, which began with the “shock and awe” bombing attack on March 19, 2003. The U.S. was backed with troops from just four other countries: Australia, Denmark, Poland and the United Kingdom. Bush announced that the “major military combat actions” in Iraq — officially dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom — ended on May 1, 2003.
The Days Just Before and After Invasion
In the hours before bombing began, Biden appeared on CNN and again warned that a large international group would be needed to successfully navigate, and help pay for, the rebuilding of Iraq once the fighting stopped. “And so that’s why I hope we begin a new round of diplomacy on, what [happens] after Saddam. Who is going to be in there with us?” Biden said.
Biden was asked about comments made by fellow Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle two days prior that he was “[s]addened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn’t create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country.”
“There’s a lot of us who voted for giving the president the authority to take down Saddam Hussein if he didn’t disarm,” Biden said. “And there are those who believe, at the end of the day, even though it wasn’t handled all that well, we still have to take him down. But what you are sensing from some Democrats, as well as Republicans, is a frustration relating to the lost opportunities of maybe being able to do this with others, maybe, if we had others with us, not even having to go to war. So I don’t think it’s anything other than a frustration.
“But I think it’s time we stop all that,” Biden said. “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.”
On April 2, 2003, Biden was again asked in a CNN interview about Daschle’s comments critical of Bush’s diplomatic efforts. This time, Biden said he “disagreed” with Daschle, who, like Biden, voted in favor of the authorization of force.
“The way the Constitution works is, we voted to give the president the authority to go to war,” Biden said. “It’s our decision whether or not we go from a state of peace to a state of war. We gave him that authority. You can second guess whether we should have or not. Once we’ve [done] that then it’s his decision to prosecute the war. I wish he had been more successful and more earnest [in] his diplomacy. And my prayer now is … that he’ll be more successful in diplomacy of how to win the peace. But as the conduct of the war goes, that’s his call.”
In an interview with Charlie Rose on March 20, 2003, the day after the start of the war, Rose asked about Biden’s comment that the war was the biggest roll of the dice by a president he had seen during his 30 years in the Senate. Biden said that comment referred to “the willingness to go without any real consensus in the world community.” Rose then asked if there was “a payoff at the end that justifies the risk” of war with Iraq.
“I think there’s a payoff at the end and that is Saddam Hussein being separated from weapons of mass destruction and enforcing a U.N. commitment made by Saddam about those weapons,” Biden said.
Later, Rose asked, “If in fact the war goes well, in however you define that … would you then say that George Bush made a wise decision in rolling the dice to disarm Saddam Hussein?”
“I all along, Charlie, believed the right decision is to separate him from his weapons and/or separate him from power,” Biden said.
“If the U.N. didn’t do it, do it?” Rose interjected.
“Yes, you’ve gotta do it,” Biden said. “Now, it’s not the time to argue it, but I am disturbed at the lost opportunities we had to bring the rest of the world along with us to this point. … And now the question is … can you make lemonade out of lemons here? And I think we have an opportunity in the aftermath of this war to repair those kinds of breaches and end up where we should be anyway, which is having made the right decision to take him down, and having not fractured in any permanent way alliances and opportunities that we’re going to need available to us, Charlie, to deal with other major problems facing us in the world, from the Korean peninsula to South Asia, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Biden continued to make similar comments in the months after the war started.
For example, in a Brookings Institution address on July 31, 2003, Biden again defended his vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.
The Bush administration was “right to confront the challenge posed by Saddam thumbing his nose at the world and refusing — refusing — to alter his conduct,” Biden said. “Contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner, rather than later. So I commend the president. He was right to enforce the solemn commitments made by Saddam. If they were not enforced … what good would they be and what value those institutions? For me, the issue was never whether we had to deal with Saddam, but when and how we dealt with Saddam. And it’s precisely the when and how that I think this administration got wrong. We went to war too soon. We went to war with too few troops. We went to war without the world, when we could have had many with us, and we’re paying the price for it now.”
It wasn’t until Nov. 27, 2005, that Biden acknowledged on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that his 2002 vote authorizing force in Iraq was “a mistake.”
“It was a mistake,” Biden said. “It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly. … We gave the president the authority to unite the world to isolate Saddam. And the fact of the matter is, we went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan.”