History

The Middle Road to Iraq

In 2002, many senators were on the fence about Bush’s planned invasion. Then–Sen. Joe Biden and a Republican ally pushed a bill made just for them.

Sens. Joe Biden and Richard Lugar speaking to reporters on June 5, 2002, at the White House in Washington.
Sens. Joe Biden and Richard Lugar on June 5, 2002, at the White House in Washington. Luke Frazza/Getty Images

This article is adapted from “Four Dicks (and Vice President Cheney),” the fifth episode of Slow Burn’s new season.

In 2002, there were people in Congress who fell in the middle on the debate over whether to go to war with Iraq. People who maybe didn’t want to give President Bush a blank check—who wanted a third way.

“The Bush administration […] If it were up to them, they would have just had a resolution that said, you know—‘The administration is authorized to go to war in Iraq for whatever purposes it deems necessary,’ ” Dan Diller, the legislative director for Republican Indiana Sen. Richard “Dick” Lugar.

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Dick Lugar grew up on a soybean farm before becoming an Eagle Scout, Rhodes Scholar, and Navy officer. By 2002, he’d run for president once and was a high-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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Lugar was a centrist with a reputation for working across the aisle. The chairman of the foreign relations committee was his pal Joe Biden, a Democratic senator who was also into bipartisanship. The two decided to work together on a bill for all the people in the middle—one that would authorize the administration to go into Iraq, but with more restrictions than the president was asking for.

The Biden-Lugar bill didn’t allow for regime-change as a goal. It said the president could only go to war to make Saddam Hussein get rid of his weapons of mass destruction. And it required President Bush to ask for United Nations approval before invading. If he couldn’t get it, he’d have to prove to Congress that the WMD threat was so serious it could only be handled with military force.

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“We believe that we had potentially 60 votes for a Biden-Lugar resolution and that it was the leading option,” Diller says.

If you were on the fence about authorizing Bush’s war, you might have been drawn to the Biden-Lugar bill. You wouldn’t be writing the president a blank check, but you also wouldn’t look soft on threats to the United States.

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We had the power to sequence votes in a way that would give cover to the Democrats who did not want to go to war,” Diller adds. “The idea was that they could vote for our resolution, even though it would have authorized the use of military force, but still had votes that would have proven that they were against the whole process. In addition to what they might say in a statement.”

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Those Democrats would look concerned and cautious—statesmanlike.

That was especially helpful for Democrats who were up for re-election in the midterms.

Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader, believed that the Iraq vote was not just a matter of conscience. It was also a decision that had to reflect what the public wanted.

It wasn’t just a question of what’s the right policy, but how do you defend yourself politically when you’ve got the overwhelming majority of the American people in support of the Bush administration’s position and really putting pressure on their members of Congress to fall in line and to be as supportive of that policy as they could be?” Daschle told me.

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Biden and Lugar’s team spent that September trying to get senators to back their version of the bill. They had Democrats and Republicans on board. And, according to Biden, the private backing of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

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But there was powerful opposition.

The Bush administration was doing everything it could to find allies and to block what we were doing,” Diller says.

I don’t want to get a resolution which ties my hands,” Bush said at the time. “I’m not sure why members would like to weaken the resolution, but we’ll work with the members, and I’m confident we can get something done, and we’ll be speaking with one voice here in the country. And that’s going to be important for the United Nations to hear that voice. And important for the world to hear that voice.”

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Biden-Lugar probably wouldn’t have stopped Bush from invading Iraq. But it might have slowed him down, and changed the scope of the war. It was kind of a throwback bill. One that imagined this President Bush might move against Iraq under the same kind of terms his father had. It was a bill that assumed an invasion actually was about WMD.

It was a bill that got the Bush administration completely wrong. Still, Lugar’s side believed they had a path to get their resolution passed. They just needed a little more time to get there.

But it turned out that they had a big roadblock in their way: Another powerful man in Congress named Dick—a Democrat with an entirely different agenda.

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