On the heels of getting caught inventing an anecdote about a service member in Afghanistan, in an attempt to make the point that the United States needs to bring its troops back home, Joe Biden has now made some interesting claims about his role in sending troops away from home in the first place. This is from NPR:
[Biden] explained that his rationale in authorizing the use of military force in Iraq in 2002 was based on a commitment he had received from then-President George W. Bush that he would not go to war in Iraq. “[Bush] 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,” said Biden. “He got them in and before you know it, we had ‘shock and awe.’ ” …
“Immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment,” Biden told NPR.
This version of events is so twisted that the very next sentence of the NPR story starts debunking the idea that Biden was antiwar. But it’s worth unpacking more fully. Let’s start from the beginning and work our way through:
• Biden voted to pass the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution on Oct. 11, 2002.* Though Biden now tells NPR that this was an intermediate step and that he had not expected it to lead directly to war, the possibility of invading Iraq to instigate “regime change” was explicitly under discussion at the time. In fact, the first article I found in a Nexis search for newspaper articles that included the words “regime change” in the months before the vote was an Aug. 1, 2002, New York Times piece that begins with the words, “In the first public hearings on the administration’s goal of ousting Saddam Hussein from the Iraqi presidency, an array of experts warned a Senate committee today that an invasion of Iraq would carry significant risks.” The chairman of that Senate committee was Joe Biden.
• Later in August, Dick Cheney gave a speech in which he announced that the U.S. would be justified in preemptively attacking Iraq in order to depose Hussein. In that speech, Cheney explicitly rejected the idea “that we should just get inspectors back into Iraq, and then our worries will be over.” A September Times article about Iraq stated matter-of-factly that “the Bush administration has been drawing up plans for an invasion.”
• United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors did, in fact, enter Iraq that November. But contra Biden’s assertion that Bush then invaded the country immediately, the resumption of inspections actually set off a months-long diplomatic process that culminated in a standoff at the U.N. between the U.S.’ small alliance, which argued that Iraq had failed to cooperate with the inspectors and was developing weapons of mass destruction in a way that justified the use of force, and a France/Russia group, which opposed the prospective invasion and held that there was no evidence that Iraqi WMDs existed. During this period, on March 10, 2003, Biden published a Washington Post op-ed in which he said that he disagreed with elements of the Bush administration’s posture at the U.N.—but also that he supported the goal of regime change, believed that “Saddam Hussein is relentlessly pursuing weapons of mass destruction,” agreed with Bush that Iraq was not adequately cooperating with inspections, and declared that he would support a military invasion of the country as early as the end of the month if it did not meet a to-be-determined set of disarmament goals. In other words, his position at the time—though it was indeed a masterpiece of trying to play every angle at once—was not that the mere achievement of nuclear inspections in Iraq should be the end goal of U.S. policy.
• Bush decided to abandon the U.N. process and invaded Iraq on March 19. U.S. forces, of course, never discovered weapons of mass destruction in the country or evidence that Hussein’s regime was developing any. As NPR notes, Biden nonetheless gave a speech in July 2003 in which he said he had made the right choice to vote for the October 2002 AUMF and that he “would vote that way again today” if given the chance—remarks that undermine his current claim that he’d known at the moment of invasion that Bush had hoodwinked him by promising that he wouldn’t ever actually go to war (which, again, is an implausible claim).
Underlying all of that is the absurdity, when two of the premises of your presidential campaign are that you have good foreign policy judgment and that you are an expert at working with Republicans in bipartisan good faith, of telling a story about how you made a disastrous foreign policy decision because a Republican took advantage of your naïve belief that he was working in bipartisan good faith.
So … given that it’s extremely at odds with both the public record and the themes of his campaign, why is Biden claiming that George W. Bush fooled him into accidentally voting to start a war? Probably because the most central theme of his campaign, and indeed the theme of his entire career, is that Joe Biden represents the common-sense majority consensus of the American public against extremists on both sides. In 2002 and 2003, a wide majority of Americans felt that Bush was a good president and that invading Iraq was a good idea, and thus Joe Biden for the most part felt that way too. In 2019, though, those positions are, at best, contested ones, and thus Joe Biden no longer holds them either. If you look at a chart of George W. Bush’s approval rating, in fact, you’ll find that he went underwater for good in the second half of 2005, and, well, let’s see here:
It was a mistake. It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly. … I—with this president, absolutely I would vote no, based on the way in which they’ve handled it.
That would be Joe Biden, in November 2005, on Meet the Press, disavowing his AUMF vote. Right on time.
Correction, Sept. 4, 2019: This post initially misstated the year that the Iraq AUMF was passed. It was 2002, not 2016.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus