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How Biden Kept Screwing Up Iraq—Over and Over and Over Again

Biden didn’t just vote to authorize the Iraq war for “peace and security.” He got it wrong at every stage, from invasion to occupation to a withdrawal that led to ISIS’ rise.

Spencer AckermanDec. 14, 2019 5:18 AM ET

In September, former Vice President Joe Biden attempted to portray himself as an opponent of the Iraq war he voted for 17 years ago. 

Sure, as a U.S. senator, he voted to authorize the war, Biden told an NPR interviewer who asked about his foreign policy judgment. But that was only after Biden got a “commitment” from George W. Bush, the war’s architect, that the former president “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.” Alas, he continued, “before we know it, we had a shock and awe”—the opening aerial bombardment of the March 2003 invasion—and then “immediately, the moment it started,” Biden opposed the war. His mistake, he said, was trusting Bush. 

Reviewing Biden’s record on Iraq is like rewinding footage of a car crash to identify the fateful decisions that arrayed people at the bloody intersection.

Much like Donald Trump’s own flexible history on Iraq, it was bald revisionism that a wag might call malarkey. Journalists and fact-checkers quickly called attention to the persistence of Biden’s support for the war. But that had the effect of obscuring Biden’s distinct and—now that he’s running for president again—relevant history with Iraq. 

Reviewing Biden’s record on Iraq is like rewinding footage of a car crash to identify the fateful decisions that arrayed people at the bloody intersection. He was not just another Democratic hawk navigating the trauma of 9/11 in a misguided way. He didn’t merely call his vote for a disastrous war part of “a march to peace and security.” Biden got the Iraq war wrong before and throughout invasion, occupation, and withdrawal. Convenient as it is to blame Bush—who, to be clear, bears primary and eternal responsibility for the disaster—Biden embraced the Iraq war for what he portrayed as the result of his foreign policy principles and persisted, most often in error, for the same reasons. 

Biden contextualized the war within an assertion that America has the right to enforce its standards of behavior in the name of the international community, even when the international community rejects American intervention. While Biden, as the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for most of the war, had unique prominence for his views, they didn’t come out of nowhere. For while Biden bullshitted through his September NPR interview, he also said something true: “I think the vast majority of the foreign policy community thinks [my record has] been very good.” That will be important context should Biden become president. He’s the favorite of many in Democratic foreign policy circles who believe in resetting the American geopolitical position to what it was the day before Trump was elected, rather than considering it critical context for why Trump was elected. 

Early in 2002, Biden became alarmed that the Bush administration was prematurely losing focus on Afghanistan in favor of Iraq, which Bush’s advisers had decided to invade soon after 9/11. Yet that did not drive Biden into opposition. Instead, by the summer of 2002, with the foreign relations committee gavel in his hand, Biden held a series of hearings to start “a national dialogue” on Iraq. He postured as picking no side at all, to avoid “prejudic[ing] any particular course of action.” Biden’s position meant Bush, at the height of his popularity and without the obstacle of the opposition party’s premier foreign policy voice, could do as he liked. 

In many ways, those hearings were remarkably prescient about what was to happen.
Tony Blinken, Biden’s longtime aide

It is important to remember the commanding political position that Bush held for two years after 9/11. By the time of Biden’s hearings, Gallup recorded Bush’s approval rating at 71 percent. By the time of the Iraq vote, it was 67 percent. National Democrats embraced the war on terrorism with enthusiasm and, with few exceptions, were disinclined to challenge Bush on foreign policy even as that foreign policy became more militant and extreme. Biden, one of the leading Democratic voices on foreign affairs, recontextualized this extremism within the patina of traditional Democratic internationalism. Not only could Democrats wage the sort of politically beneficial war Bush had monopolized, they could augment it with international legitimacy, allied contributions, and greater preparation for the difficulties ahead. Rather than questioning the purpose of the proposed Iraq invasion, Biden took it for granted that the world would go along, if only America had the wisdom to ask it. He considered that both a substantive alternative to Bush and the responsible, sober course of American foreign policy. 

Biden’s hearings highlighted the dangers of occupation, such as the basic uncertainty around what would replace Saddam Hussein, as well as the bloody, long, and expensive commitment required to midwife a democratic Iraq. “In many ways, those hearings were remarkably prescient about what was to happen,” said Tony Blinken, Biden’s longtime aide on the committee and a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. “He and [GOP Sen. Richard] Lugar talked about not the day after but the decade after. If we did go in, they talked about the lack of a plan to secure any peace that followed the intervention.”

But the balance of expert testimony concerned guessing at Saddam’s weapons program, the pragmatic questions of invading, and the diplomatic legwork of an action whose justice—if not necessarily its wisdom—was presumed. A future occupation-era Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Rend al-Rahim Francke, assured Biden’s committee, “there will not be a civil war in Iraq.” The neoconservative scholar Fouad Ajami said “kites and boom boxes” would greet the U.S. military. 

The chairman himself broke his agnosticism to say that “one thing is clear, these weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power.” He reflected the regnant foreign policy consensus in America: Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had sealed his fate by doing so. It was an enormous factual mistake born out of an inability to see that Saddam believed that transparent disarmament would spell his doom at the hands of Iran. This misapprehension led advocates to accept that the U.S.—preferably with others, but alone if necessary—was justified or even obligated to get rid of Saddam. 

By late summer, Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, convinced the White House to attempt securing United Nations support for the war. It was a cynical maneuver: the Security Council could accept additional weapons inspections but not war; Bush could claim he tried for an internationalist solution before invading unilaterally. Its primary effect was to legitimize the war in the eyes of uncomfortable congressional Democrats who had made the tactical error of disputing the war for insufficient multilateralism rather than arguing it was wrong. Biden, however, had a principle he wanted to uphold. 

For nearly an hour on the Senate floor, Biden contextualized his vote for the war within a patina of unreality. There was no rush to war, he insisted, only “a march to peace and security.” Voting against the war would “enhance the prospects that war is likely to occur.” He had already been undercut by a House Democratic agreement that obviated Biden’s preferred choice of putting greater restrictions on Bush’s ability to go to war. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Biden’s argument was that congressional unity in threatening war would compel sufficient international resolve as to somehow compel Saddam’s peaceful disarmament. He highlighted that the wording of the war resolution concerned disarming Saddam Hussein, not overthrowing him, although Biden conceded that an American army on the march would mean Saddam’s downfall. Still, it was better to obscure the objective of the war, since declaring Saddam’s impending end would “alienat[e] other countries who do not share that goal and whose support we need to disarm Iraq and possibly rebuild it, and it would significantly weaken our hand at the United Nations.” 

For Biden, the critical point, “what this is about,” was America daring to “enforce” U.N. Security Council disarmament resolutions that the U.N. was saying did not justify war. When the world stood against America, in the forum Biden considered critical and Bush considered pretextual, America would simply act in the world’s name. He approvingly quoted the infamous Henry Kissinger: “As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States has a special, unilateral capacity, and indeed obligation, to lead in implementing its convictions, but it also has a special obligation to justify its actions by principles that transcend the assertions of preponderance of power.” America’s confidence in its nobility was, in the end, all the justification it required. 

People tell you an Authorization to Use Military Force means you voted for war. No, you voted to enforce your diplomacy, if necessary, and that makes it more likely, hopefully, that the diplomacy actually works without having to enforce it. It worked at the U.N. Unfortunately, tragically, it didn’t work with President Bush.

Extraordinarily, Biden acknowledged that the “imminence and inevitability” of the threat Iraq posed was “exaggerated,” although that recognition was irrelevant to both his reasoning and his vote. He performed an end-zone dance over Bush advisers who favored what he called the doctrine of preemption—a euphemism for wars of aggression—as if his vote did not authorize exactly the preemptive war those advisers wanted. The trouble Biden saw was that elevating preemption to a foreign policy “doctrine” would grant “every nation an unfettered right of preemption.” Left unsaid was that it would be better for America to keep that unfettered right for itself. He credited Bush with choosing a “course of moderation and deliberation.” And Biden, in his own unique idiom, heralded his own influence over Bush’s choice to take the basic constitutional step of allowing congressional approval for a war: “I had two private meetings with the president myself where I made clear that I thought that was dead wrong and he would be, to use the slang on the east side of my city, in a world of hurt if he attempted to do that.” 

Biden advisers, with some exasperation, continue to reject the notion that Biden voted for war. “It’s so facile. People tell you an Authorization to Use Military Force means you voted for war,” said Blinken. “No, you voted to enforce your diplomacy, if necessary, and that makes it more likely, hopefully, that the diplomacy actually works without having to enforce it. It worked at the U.N. Unfortunately, tragically, it didn’t work with President Bush.”

Nothing that followed went the way Biden expected. Bush did not share Biden’s distinction between the U.N. weapons-inspection process and the invasion. Iraq did not passively accept its occupation. And Biden did not reap the political benefit of endorsing the war that seemed so obvious to the Democratic consultant class in the autumn of 2002. 

Iraq was an abstraction to Biden—as it was, ironically, to the neoconservatives Biden had criticized—a canvas on which to project theories of American power. During a Brookings Institution appearance four months after the invasion, Biden explained that he had cast “the right vote [on the war], and it would be a correct vote today,” even though the insurgency was beginning to coalesce. The issue for Biden was that Saddam’s intransigence over U.N. disarmament regimes, without military consequence, “renders useless such international commitments.” The fact that the weapons of mass destruction had not materialized–and would soon be shown not to exist–didn’t factor into Biden’s calculation. He asserted that had the war not happened, “I have no doubt that within five years, [Saddam] would have gained access to a tactical nuclear weapon.” 

Similarly, Biden’s worries about the war that summer were only tangentially about the war itself. The danger he saw in Iraq was not occupation, but leaving before “winning the peace.” Bush’s infamous Mission Accomplished banner ought to have read “We’ve Only Just Begun,” he said, heralding a challenge he considered within America’s power.

Still, Biden preferred talking about abstract principle and geopolitical challenge. Months after boasting that his vote for war rewarded Bush for repudiating the doctrine of preemption, Biden lamented that Bush had indeed turned preemption into an “ill-defined doctrine.” But Biden was unprepared to break from prevention, which is always the prerogative of hegemonic powers. Boxed in, he continued to argue that the trouble was Bush elevating preemption to centrality in foreign policy, and fretted that predatory states would cite that “doctrine” to prey on weaker ones. He neglected to see that all those states needed was the example of the Iraq war itself. Eleven years later, when Biden was vice president, Vladimir Putin cited Iraq as a reason the U.S. had no standing to criticize him for invading Ukraine. 

By the next summer, with Iraq in flames, Biden continued his misdiagnosis. The original sin wasn’t the war itself, it was Bush’s stewardship, the same stewardship Biden praised in 2002.

Other delusions abounded. Biden praised the leadership of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a shockingly corrupt and incompetent organization. Its chief, Jerry Bremer, was “first-rate,” Biden said mere months after Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army, the greatest gift America could have given the insurgency. Rebuilding Iraq’s police force was left to former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, whom Biden called “a serious guy with a serious team.” Iraq’s police would soon become indistinguishable from sectarian death squads; Kerik would soon plead guilty to tax fraud and other federal corruption charges. Biden’s solution to the palpable breakdown of security in the summer of 2003 was “more foreign troops to share our mission.” It was a fantasy, beloved of that era’s pro-war Democrats, that would never materialize, despite Biden’s assurance that aiding the occupation was “in their naked self-interest.”

By the next summer, with Iraq in flames, Biden continued his misdiagnosis. The original sin wasn’t the war itself, it was Bush’s stewardship—the same stewardship Biden praised in 2002. “Because we waged a war in Iraq virtually alone, we are responsible for the aftermath virtually alone,” he thundered at the 2004 Democratic convention. The intelligence “was hyped to justify going to war,” Biden continued, causing “America’s credibility and security [to] have suffered a terrible blow.” Yet Biden made no call for withdrawal. It was easier to pretend that Bush was waging a different war than the one he empowered Bush to wage. 

Writing in The New Republic, Biden insisted that Bush was wrong but he was right, since “the international community's need to enforce these U.N. resolutions provided a compelling case for war.” The “most pernicious legacy” of U.S. failure in Iraq, he continued, would be not the hundreds of thousands the war killed, maimed, and traumatized, nor the millions more it turned into refugees, but “a further hardening of the Vietnam syndrome that afflicts some in the Democratic Party—a distrust of the use of American power.” Those who had been right about the war—those that had forecast its disaster—could not be allowed to gain influence. 

By 2006, Iraq had plunged into the civil war that Ambassador Francke had told Biden’s committee would not happen. Now Biden, posturing as a third way between withdrawal and the status quo, offered an extraordinary proposal to defuse it. The U.S., he wrote, ought to “establish three largely autonomous regions” for each of Iraq’s major ethnic and confessional groups, presided over by a nominally national Baghdad government, something he called “unity through autonomy.” Biden justified it through federalist language in the Iraqi constitution, a document written and voted on under occupation. 

The U.S., unable to win the war it chose, would be better off reshaping the map of Iraq into something that better suited it. The proposal was a natural outgrowth of viewing Iraq as an abstraction. Now that Iraq had undermined American power, Iraq would be subject to a kind of dismemberment, a theoretically cleaner problem to solve than a civil war or a weak client state. In September 2007, Biden prevailed upon his fellow senators to endorse his proposal on a staggering 75-23 vote

There was no support for the idea among actual Iraqis outside Kurdistan, but they were beside the imperial point. “They shouldn’t be proposing its division. That could be a disaster not just for Iraq but for the region,” said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at that point America’s client. The Los Angeles Times noted that Iraqis, in the midst of a civil war, united against Biden. A statement from leading Sunni and Shia politicians said Congress set “a dangerous precedent to establishing the nature of the relationship between Iraq and the U.S.A. and shows the Congress as if it were planning for a long-term occupation by their country’s troops.” Biden, by then running for president a second time, rejected the criticism of actual Iraqis, insisting to Time, “It is not partition! It is not foreign imposition!” 

“The Iraqis were free to accept, reject, or act on it,” Blinken said. “If the Iraqis felt the constitution was written under wrong pretenses, they always could redo it, but it was totally grounded in the constitution. A lot of folks came around to the basic idea that federalism was a way to keep the country together. But he was not imposing it on anyone.”

At the same time, 2007 saw Biden’s most valorous act on Iraq. With the war a morass, Biden secured $23 billion, far more than the Pentagon requested, to buy Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, whose hull design proved more survivable against the insurgency’s improvised bombs. Replacing insufficiently armored Humvees with MRAPs was “a passion,” he said. While the number of lives MRAPs saved over the course of the program’s $45 billion lifespan has been disputed, the Pentagon estimated in 2012 that over 2,000 service members are alive today because of the vehicle. Biden counted securing the funding for the MRAP among his greatest congressional achievements.

While Biden’s campaign failed, it provided him with an unexpected opportunity for redemption. Barack Obama had opposed the Iraq war, but was hardly afflicted with the “distrust of the use of American power” that Biden feared in 2004. Selecting Biden as his vice president laundered Biden’s reputation. No longer was Biden the man whose faith in American exceptionalism had driven the U.S. into a morass. He was the lovable uncle in aviators who washed his metaphorical Trans Am on the White House lawn. Obama gave him responsibility for a three-year project of U.S. withdrawal, one that Biden considers an accomplishment

But Iraq had been so shattered by war and occupation that it could not withstand the rise of the so-called Islamic State. It would be absurd to consider that Biden’s fault alone. But, as Mike Giglio recently explored in The Atlantic, Biden and other U.S. officials appeared at times dangerously unconcerned about Maliki’s consolidation of power that once again marginalized Sunni Iraq, which the war had already proven would give jihadis the opportunity they needed. Biden successfully argued within the administration for continued support of Maliki as prime minister during Iraq’s nine-month process of forming a new government in 2010—even as blatant U.S. intervention, predicated on empowering rivals to mitigate Maliki’s excesses, failed. A former senior State Department official who worked with Biden on Iraq at the time told Giglio that “we should have been much more outspoken” about the need for Maliki to share power. In any event, while the administration believed itself a driver of Iraqi politics ahead of the withdrawal, an aide to the Iraqi Kurdish president told The New York Times that the Americans were “picking events and reacting on the basis of events. That is the policy.” 

Blinken, who was part of the diplomatic team shuttling between Baghdad and Washington at the time, rejects the criticism. Biden “absolutely had no brief for Nouri al-Maliki,” he said, but there was no viable alternative. 

Biden reflected America’s schizophrenic attitude toward ending post-9/11 wars, in which leaving a residual force amidst an unsettled conflict does not count as continuing a war. He reportedly predicted that Maliki, whom Biden had argued for supporting, would modify an expiring troop-basing accord known as a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to permit an extended U.S. presence. “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” the Times quoted him. Instead, the following year, the Iraqi parliament did no such thing. The U.S. withdrew in full at the end of 2011. Not three years later, when ISIS overran Mosul, Obama felt compelled to reinvade with a smaller U.S. force—though this time, the U.S. refused to support Maliki. Five thousand U.S. troops remain in Iraq today. 

“Once Maliki was back [in power], what tore Iraq apart again and led to the rise of ISIS was his extreme sectarianism. It was not for want of us trying, and berating, and arguing, pushing and pulling and prodding that he was headed for disaster if he continued down that path,” Blinken said. “We obviously failed at getting him to change course, but it was not for lack of trying.”

Biden was hardly the hawk inside the Obama administration that fellow Iraq-war supporter Hillary Clinton was. He opposed the Afghanistan escalation, although he argued for even more drone strikes instead. He opposed overthrowing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, a 2011 decision that has left Libya in chaos for nearly a decade. He was reportedly against a CIA plan to arm Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s opposition for fear of enmeshing America within another Mideast civil war, though he helped lobby Congress to approve an ultimately abandoned plan to attack Assad militarily. 

Biden is the last of the pre-Obama generation of Democratic foreign policy grandees who enabled the Iraq war. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton both lost their presidential bids, saddled in both cases with the legacy of the war they supported. Now Biden confronts rivals like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are both sketching out foreign policies that begin with ending a generation of war. Sanders in particular is offering a geopolitical worldview that stands as a polar opposite to Biden’s, one of international bottom-up resistance to worldwide oligarchy. Should Biden get past Sanders, Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, Trump lies in wait—another GOP president whom Biden has misdiagnosed, to the point of expressing shock that Trump would seek to weaponize U.S. influence over Ukraine to harm his family. 

A President Biden is likely to find himself a man out of time. Writing in The Guardian, David Adler and Ben Judah recently described Biden as a “restorationist” in foreign policy, aiming at setting the American geopolitical clock back to what it was before Trump took office. Yet now an emergent China, a resurgent Russia, and the ascent of nationalism and oligarchy across Europe, India, and South America have fragmented the America-centric internationalist order that Biden represents. While Trump has accelerated these dynamics, he is far less responsible for them than is the martial post-9/11 course of U.S. foreign policy that wrecked itself, most prominently in Iraq. 

He’s said explicitly, we can’t go back to the way the world was, it has changed significantly even since [President Trump’s election].

It remains to be seen if the U.S. foreign policy community can reckon with its new geopolitical reality. As Biden noted to NPR, he has a deep well of support within foreign policy circles, where supporting the Iraq war is treated as an unfortunate, understandable detail and a smaller problem than Iraq-inspired domestic skepticism of American power—an update of what Biden and others used to call the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Recently, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported that 133 diplomatic, military, and development heavyweights backed Biden. They consider him an “antidote” to Trump, not an example of the political failures that seeded the bed for Trump. Kerry, the former secretary of state, recently endorsed his longtime friend and ally Biden. 

Blinken pushed back on the idea that Biden’s blend of liberal internationalism has passed its relevance. “He’s said explicitly, we can’t go back to the way the world was, it has changed significantly even since [President Trump’s election]. We have to engage the world as is and as we anticipate it will be, not as it was, but some of the basic principles he would bring to our foreign policy still hold,” he said. 

In a 2016 interview, Biden rejected a more hawkish Syria policy. When asked about overthrowing Middle Eastern dictators, he said, “I don’t think we should use force unless it meets certain basic criteria. Is it in the national security interest of the United States, are our interests directly threatened, number one, or our allies? Number two, can we use it efficaciously, will it work? And number three, can it be sustained?” 

For someone who has been for decades a pillar of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Biden’s criteria are notably generic. They are flexible enough that every presidency, including Trump’s, portrays itself as meeting them. It wasn’t so long ago that Biden thought the Iraq war met his tests. It yielded an America far less able to shape the world it wants but unrepentant in its right to do so.