Iowa, Democrats and the Iraq War

Iowa has spoken, and what the Democratic caucus attendees said seems to have been either ignored or overlooked by much of the mainstream media.

On the Republican side, there was not much to say anyway. Evangelical voters propelled former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to victory, over the chameleon-like Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Huckabee’s bizarre statements (such as his call to “take this nation back for Christ,” whatever on earth that means) notwithstanding, at least his dangerous, far-from-the-mainstream positions on most of the important issues of the day do not undergo situational change, as do Mr. Romney’s. So it cannot be surprising that the misnamed Christian Right rejected Mr. Romney as too recent and unconvincing a convert to its far-right positions, as well as breathing a sigh of relief that they did not have to vote for a Mormon.

But on the Democratic side there is news. The supposedly invincible Senator Hillary Clinton was relegated to third place, perhaps casting a significant roadblock onto her trek to the White House. Former Senator and 2004 vice-presidential candidate John Edwards came in a dismal and distant second to the victor, Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

In 2004, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry surprisingly won the Iowa caucuses and then went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination, only to lose the general election. It was said after that first contest in Iowa in 2004 that the party wanted a candidate who could win; former governor Howard Dean, the media-darling frontrunner, was not so perceived by the voters. Yet Mr. Kerry failed to overcome the reservations of many Democrats who could not overlook his vote to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq. Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton also voted for war at that time.

A brief review of events during that period may be necessary. Mr. Bush was busy rattling his saber at his ‘axis of evil,’ with oil-rich Iraq being the main target. He, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell all used the fear card as they worked to tell an unconvinced population that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and would soon use them against the U.S. With the wounds of the September 11, 2001 attacks still festering, they strongly implied a connection between the events of that day and Iraq, and hoped to convince the world that Iraq must be neutralized through a ‘pre-emptive’ strike.

In response, Iraq opened its doors to United Nations’ weapons inspectors, and granted them unprecedented access to all requested areas. As the inspectors searched the country in vain, Messrs Bush, Cheney and Powell continued their fear-based rhetoric, much of which was dismissed by the U.S. public, but swallowed whole by Congress. And there, voting for war, were Senators Edwards and Clinton. Mr. Edwards was eloquent in his support of the war resolution: “Others argue that if even our allies support us, we should not support this resolution because confronting Iraq now would undermine the long-term fight against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Yet, I believe that this is not an either-or choice. Our national security requires us to do both, and we can.” This statement was made during a speech on October 10, 2002, one day before the vote.

Two years later, Mr. Edwards was unapologetic. Appearing on ‘Meet the Press’ on October 10, 2004, Mr. Tim Russert asked him the following question: “If you knew todayand you do know there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq…would you still vote to go to war with Iraq?” Mr. Edwards responded thusly: “I would have voted for the resolution knowing what I know today, because it was the right thing to do to give the president the authority to confront Saddam Hussein.” Mr. Edwards is indeed a late convert to the cause of peace and diplomacy, rather than war and imperialism.

Ms. Clinton was more guarded in her 2002 vote. Said she at that time: “Even though the resolution before the Senate is not as strong as I would like in requiring the diplomatic route first and placing highest priority on a simple, clear requirement for unlimited inspections, I take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a United Nations resolution and seek to avoid war, if possible.

“Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely and war less likely, and because a good faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our Nation. If we were to defeat this resolution or pass it with only a few Democrats, I am concerned that those who want to pretend this problem will go way with delay will oppose any United Nations resolution calling for unrestricted inspections.”

It is regrettable that Ms. Clinton was deceived in her belief in Mr. Bush’s word that he would seek to avoid war. It is unfortunate that her vote did not ‘bring more allies and legitimacy’ to the cause. It is also unfortunate that the requirement for unlimited inspections that she wanted to see was not included. Had it been, perhaps today nearly 4,000 dead U.S. soldiers would still be alive, thousands more would not be languishing neglected and underserved in veterans’ hospitals, and still others would not have life-altering injuries. Perhaps too over 1,000,000 dead Iraqis would still be alive, enjoying the love of now-grieving families and friends. Perhaps over 3,000,000 Iraqis who have fled their homes in terror would still be able to live in the relative security that their nation offered, rather then fleeing to an unknown future. Perhaps the Middle East would not have been destabilized, risking expanded war throughout much of the world. Perhaps monies that have been poured down the Iraqi war drain could have been used to provide health care for America’s 45,000,000 uninsured citizens, a cause which we are led to believe is near and dear to Ms. Clinton’s heart.

So perhaps Iowa’s Democrats could not be fooled again. If a candidate voted for the war authorization in 2002, he or she could not be trusted to end the war. He or she could not be electable, because the general population could not muster sufficient enthusiasm to accomplish it. In 2004 a vote for Mr. Kerry, for many voters, was simply a vote against Mr. Bush. Enthusiasm is generally greater when working for a goal, than when working against one.

Enter Mr. Obama. He has the advantage of not needing to apologize for his vote on Iraq, as Mr. Edwards eventually did. Neither must he explain it to death, so as to appear to have done the right thing, while not doing the right thing, as Ms. Clinton has done. Mr. Obama was not in the U.S. Senate at that time, but was a state senator. His remarks of October 2, 2002 are worth reviewing:

“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. Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

“But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.”

The Democratic Party of Iowa was faced with a three-way choice (one hates to discount the other candidates, such as Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, but political realities being what they are, the choice was really between Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards and Ms. Clinton. In U.S. politics, money talks). In November of 2006 it was made clear to even the dullest student of politics that the Iraq war was the most important issue to the voters. The Congress elected then has betrayed the people, who now look desperately for a president to accomplish what Congress can but refuses to do. There is a healthy degree of skepticism about the possible course a President Edwards or President Clinton would take, based on their past actions. The caucus participants apparently felt far more comfortable with the idea of a President Obama.

The dreary, endless primary season has begun. Who the eventual candidates will be is still very much in question. But Ms. Clinton and Mr. Edwards, if they wish to remain viable candidates, must somehow come to terms with the fact that the nation does not have quite the short attention span they may have believed or hoped. They voted for the war, and all the explanations and apologies in the world will not change that. Whether or not his early and consistent opposition to the war will propel Mr. Obama to the White House remains to be seen.

Conversely, Mr. Edwards’ and Ms. Clinton’s early endorsement of the war may be sufficient to deny them the prize they both covet.

ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.



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Robert Fantina’s latest book is Empire, Racism and Genocide: a History of US Foreign Policy (Red Pill Press).

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