a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Senator Clinton and the Iraq AUMF

Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 29th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I wound up voting for Obama in the Maryland primary because I thought “getting bamboozled into approving a disastrous war seems like a mistake [Hillary Clinton] could all too easily make again.”

At the time, I didn’t support that statement with a discussion of Senator Clinton’s vote for the Iraq Authorization of Military Force (AUMF). This post considers the evidence and alternatives available to Clinton* at the time, as well as subsequent statements about the AUMF and similar issues by herself and supporters.


Standards of evidence
A fundamental problem for 2002 AUMF supporters such as Senator Clinton (and Senator Edwards, and myself, for that matter) is that it turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And that was the premise on which Senator Clinton and so many others built their support, however reluctant or nuanced, for waging war — or authorizing it at President Bush’s discretion, if you prefer. As Clinton herself began her October 10, 2002 Senate speech announcing her support for the AUMF (emphases added here an in other quotes):

Today we are asked whether to give the President of the United States authority to use force in Iraq should diplomatic efforts fail to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons and his nuclear program.

Like most — but not all — of the Senate, Hillary Clinton accepted as a given something that would prove to be completely mistaken. She has insisted that she did not simply accept the Bush administration’s word for that, but did her own “due diligence” as well. That’s good, of course; how she appears to have done so is less good, judging by her statement to the Concord Monitor last December:

I talked to a lot of people in my husband’s administration, I talked to Tony Blair, I talked to a lot of sources, and I had the same question: Do you think he still has these kinds of capacities?

Apparently, many to most of her sources answered “yes,” “even though” they were Tony Blair or Clinton administration hands. “Due diligence” appears to have been simply substituting one authority with an equally mistaken second one — rather than personally consulting the available evidence and asking herself, “Do I think it’s proven that he has these capacities?”

Undue lack of diligence
Other Senators did just that by taking a close look at the complete National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) — all too few, to be sure (22 told the The Hill they did, while a staffer told the same reporters “less than ten”; a Washington Post article reports 6 signatures on a log).

The Hill report tally suggests there was a definite relationship between reading the NIE and “Nay” votes on the AUMF. Of the 22 Senators claiming to have read the NIE, 43% voted against the resolution, compared with only 23% of Senators overall. The discrepancy is larger yet for Democratic Senators — 10 of 14, or 71%, voted against the resolution. (A spreadsheet with detailed AUMF vote and NIE response data and tabulations can be viewed here.)

The full NIE made clearer the lack of intelligence agency consensus on Iraq WMDs — an instructive contrast with the browbeating certainties Cheney and Bush were trumpeting over the airwaves. Of course, skepticism about Bush’s Iraq WMD claims may have preceded reading the report for many Senators. But however their Iraq war “Nay” votes and NIE perusals were related, Senator Clinton was not among their number; she told a protester in New Hampshire that she was merely “briefed” on the NIE, according to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr. (“Hillary’s War,” New York Times Magazine, 5/29/07).

Gerth and Van Natta found one other crucial pre-war “intelligence consumption” error — or worse — by Senator Clinton. She accused Saddam of harboring Al Qaeda terrorists, even though that was not supported by the NIE she was briefed on, and was all but contradicted by other 2002 intelligence reports. Gerth and Van Natta note that Ken “Threatening Storm” Pollack felt the link was “[expletive]” — and discussed Iraq with Clinton before her 2002, though he didn’t share his advice with the two reporters.

Misled by experience

Video recorded by Kirsten Michel during a Code Pink meeting
with Clinton on March 6, 2003; to skip the singing, go to
the 1:30 minute mark.
Meeting transcript by Thomas Nephew (corrections welcome).

Senator Clinton believed she was drawing on President Bill Clinton’s experiences in authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. This was evident in a brief meeting Senator Clinton had with a large “Code Pink” activist delegation, reported by Gerth and Van Natta. As it happens, a video of the meeting (shot by Kirsten Michels) is available, and is provided to the right; I’ve made a transcript of the remarks by Senator Clinton and activist participants including Medea Benjamin. The meeting ended acrimoniously — an activist tried to give Senator Clinton a pink slip, who got angry about that — but before that it was a remarkably good window into the Senator’s thinking.

Senator Clinton claimed to have “ended up voting for the resolution after carefully reviewing the information and intelligence that I had available.” When a participant challenged the case for the war, adding “it is not up to this government to disarm Saddam Hussein, it’s up to the community of nations,” Senator Clinton responded:

…With respect to whose responsibility it is to disarm Saddam Hussein, I just do not believe that, given the attitudes of many people in the world community today, that there would be a willingness to take on very difficult problems, were it not for the United States’ leadership. And I’m talking specifically about what had to be done in Bosnia and Kosovo, where my husband could not get a Security Council resolution to save the Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleansing. And we did it alone as the United States, and we had to do it alone. It would have been far preferable if the Russians and others had agreed to do it through the United Nations. They would not. I’m happy that in the face of such horrible suffering we did act.

And so I see it somewhat differently – you’ll forgive me – from my experience and perspective.

It seems to me from this that Hillary Clinton’s experience, such as it was, actually worked against her; she made a false analogy between an actual human rights crisis* on the heels of prior ones and a theoretical WMD “crisis” that wasn’t, illogically seeing the obstacles to US action in both cases as proof-by-similarity of the correctness of the war policy — and of the short-circuited diplomatic policy that went with it.

The Levin Amendment: wrong then, still wrong now
The most interesting part of Gerth and Van Natta’s report is their examination of Clinton’s vote on the Levin Amendment to the AUMF — mischaracterized by Senator Clinton in the January 31 Los Angeles debate as suggesting that “the United States would subordinate whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council.”

While this was indeed an oft-repeated criticism — by the likes of Joe Lieberman or John McCain — during the October 9/10, 2002 debates about the Levin Amendment, it was simply untrue, as patient but unavailing rebuttals by Senators Levin, Sarbanes, and others made clear.

While the Levin Amendment made immediate congressional authorization of military force contingent on an appropriate U.N. Security Council resolution, it reserved the right of self-defense and also said that Congress would not adjourn indefinitely (“sine die“) but would “return to session at any time before the next Congress convenes to consider promptly proposals relative to Iraq if in the judgment of the President the United Nations Security Council fails to adopt or enforce” a resolution authorizing military force to enforce unrestricted inspections.***

That is, war was not authorized by the Congress unless it was by the United Nations — but if the U.N. didn’t authorize military enforcement of full inspection access, Congress stood ready to reconsider immediately. While the resolution shared the preconception that there were Iraqi WMD to discover and destroy, it was a last ditch effort to insert world community approval between peace and a unilateral decision by Bush to go to war. If that approval was not forthcoming, war proponents would have had to address that — along with the continued failure to find (nonexistent) WMD; if it was, the world would at least have shared in the responsibility for Iraq.

After considerable debate on October 9 and 10, the Levin Amendment failed 24-75 in the full Senate. While Senator Clinton subsequently argued, both in her floor speech on October 10th and in statements since then, that she was voting for diplomacy and against pre-emptive war, she had voted against the primary legislative effort that would have forced Bush to seek world community approval.

Unreliable memory
While Clinton touts her foreign policy experience, experience is no help if you don’t correctly remember (or communicate) what has happened. And Senator Clinton’s L.A. debate statement about the Levin amendment isn’t the only example of her getting uncomfortable facts about Iraq wrong. In her pre-New Hampshire primary interview with the Concord Monitor, Senator Clinton spoke of President Bill Clinton’s “Operation Desert Fox” as a precedent for Bush’s war, and a justification for her (qualified) authorization:

In ’98, [Saddam] threw the inspectors out, which at least to me raised the possibility that they were getting close to something, and therefore he wanted them out.

Well, no. What actually happened was that while Saddam arguably made it too difficult for inspectors to do worthwhile work, he didn’t “throw them out” — they eventually left at the behest of the U.S. ambassador to the UN, and a looming military campaign by the U.S. and U.K. to destroy suspect sites.

Looking ahead
Well and good: Hillary Clinton isn’t perfect, she made some mistakes that others — including John Edwards — have made as well. The critical thing now is that she’s learned from them.

Except that’s not clear, either. As Jonathan Schwarz (“A Tiny Revolution”) noted, she was willing to go out on a limb about what Israel had accomplished with its bombing of a Syrian installation in a debate last September:

…what we think we know is that with North Korean help, both financial and technical and material, the Syrians apparently were putting together, and perhaps over some period of years, a nuclear facility, and the Israelis took it out.

But as Seymour Hersh has written — and as Obama pointed out in a rejoinder — that’s not clear at all. Hersh said he was repeatedly told by sources that they were “not aware of any solid evidenceof ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.” Instead, the bombing may have just been a reaction to the Hezbollah war fiasco in the summer of 2006: “The truth is not important,” [an ambassador to Israel of an Israeli ally] told me. “Israel was able to restore its credibility as a deterrent. That is the whole thing. No one will know what the real story is.” So it may have been an attack on a questionable target to send a message and assuage a keenly felt defeat. Sounds familiar.

Likewise, there’s the matter of Iran. In Los Angeles, Clinton came out against “putting the prestige of the presidency” on the line with meetings with leaders of countries like (it may be assumed) Iran. Obama, by contrast, warned against “mission creep” in Iraq starting to include a goal of Iran. He also cited the — ahem — recent NIE on Iran, noting it “suggested that if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior, and we can do so in a way that does not ultimately cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and hurt our reputation around the world.”****

As some reading this blog know, I made arguments similar to Senator Clinton’s in 2003. But at least I now recognize at least some of the problems with these arguments — and their less rational underpinnings. Given that there were no WMD to disarm Saddam of, the evidence for them could not possibly have been definitive.

Hillary Clinton was certainly not alone in being certain that there were WMD in Iraq. Still, she did have more information at her disposal than most — and she failed to take advantage of that. In an early excellent analysis of pre-war intelligence and decision-making, “Operation Desert Snipe,” blogger RonK calls the whole fiasco “a marvelous case study in… collective self-deception. The plot spoilers were there all the time. “Everybody” was so sure, and so wrong.” Clinton supporters argue that she has long recognized her vote was a mistake, pointing to statements from late 2005 through the Los Angeles debate at the end of last month that “If Congress had been asked [to authorize the war], based on what we know now, we never would have agreed.” But that’s not really the same thing as saying “based on what we didn’t know then, we never should have agreed.” And while she arguably went a little further in the February 26 Cleveland debate, using it as the vote she would most like to have taken back and that she “would not have voted that way again,” it’s still not clear whether she understands or admits just what her mistake was in doing so.

There’s a revealing postscript to the Code Pink/Hillary meeting story, I think, in Gerth and Van Natta’s article. By 2006, Hillary Clinton was disenchanted with the Iraq war and began joining meetings of other Senators who were as well. But when Senator Feingold said “Democrats want us out” of Iraq, Clinton replied,“I face the base all the time…I think we need wiggle room.”

Hillary had not reached out beyond her comfort zone for advice, she had not taken the trouble to see for herself whether there was truly an imminent threat from Iraq, and she had voted against the measure that would have required a United Nations decision before proceeding to military action. Meanwhile, for all their kumbayah songs and pink outfits, Code Pink activists had been right, and she had been wrong. But even as she began to climb down from her 2002 mistake, they and other war opponents were still merely a “base” to be “faced” — and delayed.

Now the base is biting back. I’m not a whole-hearted Obama supporter, but on this — the defining issue of the last six years — his independent analysis was right, and her follow-the-leaders analysis was wrong. Under the actual rules of our political game these days, getting issues of war and peace right the first time has become the President’s job. By that measure Clinton is, shall we say, no slam dunk.

[Many of the items below can be found via a Hillary Clinton + Iraq shared link set.]

* It should be said that this evidence and these alternatives were also available to my favored candidate John Edwards. Also, as I mentioned last week, I shared the view at the time that Saddam’s alleged WMD development justified the war.
** (1) I realize some argue the Kosovo crisis was trumped up, but I respectfully disagree; after Bosnia and after Srebrenice, it was impossibile to exaggerate or ignore Milosevic’s willingness to engage in ethnic cleansing when the harbingers of more appeared in Kosovo. This may or may not have been our fight, but it was not a fight about a mirage. (2) Senator McCain also made the comparison to Kosovo during the Iraq AUMF debates.
*** E.g., Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) :“I will not and cannot support any effort to give the United Nations Security Council Congress’s proxy in deciding whether or not to send American men and women into combat in Iraq. No Security Council vote can answer my questions about plans for securing WMD or American responsibilities in the wake of an invasion of Iraq. It is for this reason that I must oppose the proposal of the distinguished Senator from Michigan.” However, contraeriposte” (“TalkLeft”) and other Clinton supporters, this should not be seen as agreement with Senator Clinton’s L.A. debate remarks. On the face of his remarks, Feingold was concerned about any automatic authorization of force, even one contingent on a UNSC resolution. Clinton — as her subsequent AUMF vote showed — was not.
**** From “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities”: “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”

EDIT, 3/2: “arguments” link added.
EDIT, 4/15: spreadsheet listed as separate resource.

13 Responses to “Senator Clinton and the Iraq AUMF”

  1. John Callender Says:

    Huh. I get “This video is no longer available” when I try to view the Code Pink meeting video.

  2. John Callender Says:

    Hm. And now it’s working. I guess I did something wrong the first time. Never mind. 🙂

  3. WorldWideWeber Says:

    Barack Obama had the good fortune to not be in the US Senate when the AUMF was voted on. Anyone who is certain he would have voted against it are endowed with more native certainty than I. Those who feel “rather” certain he would have voted against it have my sympathy and respect. But those who continue to club Hillary Clinton about it do not. Our deluded president and his lying cabal are primarily responsible for the fact that we invaded Iraq–99% responsible, in my view (and yes, I’ve done the math). They cynically put the US Congress in an impossible position, and created an especially excruciating dilemma for any Democrat who had their eye on a White House run. (“You’re running for president, and yet you voted against giving the president the tools he needs blah blah blah.”) Kerry voted for it. Edwards voted for it. Biden voted for it. Clinton voted for it. And so on. Obama was spared having to vote.
    Don’t get me wrong: I was plenty pissed at Kerry, Edwards, Clinton, et al. at the time. I could smell the crap in the Administration’s arguments and trumped-up “intelligence.” Why the hell couldn’t they? But then, I wasn’t exactly pleased with your views at the time, Thomas! And we’re still friends, right? I think Iraq may have been the equivalent for Hillary of JFK’s sudden education in foreign policy and domestic skulduggery after the Bay of Pigs. But I think the point is rapidly becoming moot as Obama continues to surge …

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Iraq may been the equivalent for Hillary of JFK’s sudden education
    That’s where the ongoing “I’m tough enough” talk and the Syria and Iran examples come in — for that matter, where that “it’s 3am” ad comes in. What’s that but a “you know I’ll blow stuff up” message?
    certain voted against it have my respect, continue to club Hillary about it don’t
    I’m not clubbing her. I’m saying she should have done better, and she should have learned from it. She didn’t, and it seems to me she hasn’t.

    eye on the White House… Obama spared having to vote
    It’s not like it was 100-0 in the Senate. Many Senators voted against it. It seems likely to me he would have been among them. And re “eye on the White House”, Hillary’s White House bid would be a lock right now if she’d voted “no”. More importantly, if Obama wins out, the kinds of pulls you talk about will be quite a bit more evenly matched by “what if this is a bad idea” ones.

    wasn’t exactly pleased with your views at the time, Thomas! …still friends…
    Well I’m not exactly pleased with them either! Glad we’re still friends. But (a) we’re not electing me, we’re not electing a friend and (b) I don’t hate Hillary, I’m just not voting for her in the primary. What I might have said better is that she’s a roll of the dice, too, when it comes to that 3am call. In fact, I think she’s more of one.

  5. Nell Says:

    WorldWideWeber, the Democratic pols with presidential ambitions put themselves in that excruciating position, by getting Tom Daschle to change his initial decision not to allow a vote on the war authorization before the elections.
    It was political idiocy as well as disastrous policy (“We need to get Iraq out of the way so we can talk about our issues”, ‘our issues’ being things like prescription drug benefits).

  6. vote-nader Says:

    Bro, you have to get those ladies at shakesville to read this post.

  7. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks! I appreciate the sentiment. FWIW, I did crosspost this at “American Street”, which gets about 10x the traffic this site does. Don’t know quite how to “shop” something to a site I’m not all that familiar with and that seems to lean pro-Clinton; seems like it would come off as just being annoying.
    [return to “Senator Clinton and the Iraq AUMF vote“]

  8. vote-nader Says:

    What is your opinion of Nader?

  9. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Honestly? OK: halfway between “mild negative” and “Don’t know”, times a mid sized dollop of “rarely give him much thought.”
    I used to be more mad at him and his supporters for 2000 than I am now. Mainly, of course, it was his perfect right to run whether that was “helpful” in a larger sense or not; Gore could have run harder left and snapped up some of those voters (though at some unknown cost of other voters put off by that). I now figure his year 2000 voters would mainly just not have voted if he’d not been in the race. (Though my own experience of eventually picking Obama when Edwards withdrew tells me some people may have switched to Gore.) His manner is a little off-putting to me, but that may be residual bias.
    To me, he’s like Kucinich: lots of perfect positions (I’m willing to assume), but it’s unclear to me whether he could make anything happen — or would want to if it wasn’t perfect. I think he ought to run and win for Senate or governor or congressman somewhere, see how that goes. I might even contribute to that.
    Nevertheless, I’m a lesser-evil voter in the upcoming presidential election, and will do what I can to help Obama or even Hillary beat McCain. Since you prompt me, I’ll have a look at what Nader’s saying he’s for — and how he imagines he’d do it.

  10. » Blog Archive » The purpose served Says:

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  12. » Blog Archive » Past diminishing and well into negative returns… Says:

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