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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Kerry Spins His Record on Iraq

Secretary of State John Kerry recently revised the historical record to say both he and Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense, “opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq” as senators. Both voted to give President Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq.

It’s true that Kerry gave his vote with the hope and understanding that the Bush administration would seek a diplomatic solution to avoid war and, failing that, that the administration would gain broad international support for U.S. military action. Kerry, an outspoken critic of Bush’s handling of those diplomatic efforts, called the war “a failure of diplomacy of a massive order” on the eve of the first airstrikes.

But Kerry agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and should be overthrown, and defended his war authorization vote more than once — including saying in a May 2003 debate that Bush made the “right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

Kerry made his remarks during a Sept. 5 interview on MSNBC’s “All In” with host Chris Hayes. The two men discussed President Obama’s call for military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Hayes, Sept. 5, 2013: If we strike, if we strike Assad, what happens if he uses chemical weapons again? It seems that we have then committed ourself to an escalated punitive …

Kerry: I disagree. And, first of all, let — let — let me make this clear. The president — and this is very important, because I think a lot of Americans, all of your listeners, a lot of people in the country are sitting there and saying oh, my gosh, this is going to be Iraq, this is going to be Afghanistan. Here we go again. I know this. I — I’ve heard it. And the answer is no, profoundly no.

You know, Senator Chuck Hagel, when he was senator, Senator Chuck Hagel, now secretary of defense, and when I was a senator, we opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq, but we know full well how that evidence was used to persuade all of us that authority ought to be given.

Of course, Kerry knows he voted on Oct. 11, 2002, to give Bush authorization to use military force in Iraq, along with 76 other senators, including Hagel. He was reminded of it throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, when he was the Democratic Party’s nominee. During a presidential primary debate in May 2003 — about seven months after the Senate approved the use of force and two months after the war started — Kerry was asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos about Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Stephanopoulos, May 3, 2003: On March 19 President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. Was that the right decision at the right time?

Kerry: I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.

Kerry, in the same debate, said that he is “not ambivalent” about the Iraq war and that he was “glad we did” disarm Hussein.

Kerry, May 3, 2003: I’m the only person running for this job who’s actually fought in a war. I’m not ambivalent about the war [in Iraq]. I believe that before you go to war, it ought to really be the last resort and you should exhaust your diplomatic remedies, but I was in favor of disarming Saddam Hussein, and I’m glad we did. There’s no ambivalence. I believe I bring strength to this ticket: strength about how we maintain a military that is strong, but make ourselves stronger in the world.

Kerry didn’t oppose the war; he opposed the way Bush handled the war powers that he and others in Congress gave the president.

The Massachusetts Democrat, at least as far back as February 2002, called for the overthrow of Hussein. As Bush was mulling military action against the Iraqi dictator, Kerry told the Boston Herald there is “no question in my mind that Saddam Hussein has to be toppled one way or another, but the question is how.” At that time, he spoke of supporting rebels within Iraq to oust Hussein.

Boston Herald, Feb. 14, 2002: Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Foreign Relations Committee member, said plotting the best way to remove Saddam poses a daunting challenge for Bush. “There’s no question in my mind that Saddam Hussein has to be toppled one way or another, but the question is how,” he told the Herald.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Md.), a fellow Foreign Relations panel member, said America risks destabilizing the region as it targets Iraq. “The easy part, if you will, is taking Saddam out,” Biden said on CNN. “The hard part is what you do after.”

Kerry said he would prefer to see anti-Saddam Iraqi rebels carry the fight, rather than risking U.S. troops.

“It’s quite possible Hussein can be removed by pressures from within Iraq,” said Kerry. “We should certainly push the curve on that process, even as we extend Hussein a serious ultimatum.”

Kerry noted that Saddam has failed to respond to past U.S. warnings about permitting United Nations arms inspectors to do their job in Iraq.

“It’s clear that Saddam Hussein continues to be a major threat . . . in part because some in this country were slow-footed and didn’t have the stomach to hold Saddam accountable,” said Kerry.

As Bush began making a case to forcibly remove Hussein from power, Kerry, in July 2002, told fellow Democrats at a political event in New York City that he agreed with “this administration’s goal of regime change in Iraq.” But Kerry criticized the administration for “hasty war talk” and said he supported the effort as a “last step,” as he put it in a Sept. 6, 2002, op-ed in the New York Times.

Kerry wrote in the Times that there is “no question that Saddam Hussein continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction” and needs to be removed. But he called on the administration to exhaust “all other avenues of protecting our national interest” and to build a broad coalition of “support from the region and from our allies.”

Kerry, Sept. 6, 2002: There is, of course, no question about our capacity to win militarily, and perhaps to win easily. There is also no question that Saddam Hussein continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and his success can threaten both our interests in the region and our security at home. But knowing ahead of time that our military intervention will remove him from power, and that we will then inherit all or much of the burden for building a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, is all the more reason to insist on a process that invites support from the region and from our allies. We will need that support for the far tougher mission of ensuring a future democratic government after the war. …

If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community’s already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement, even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that Kerry said in an Oct. 5, 2002, speech in Iowa that he was skeptical “about launching an American attack on Iraq without broad international support.” The speech was delivered six days before the Senate vote on the war resolution.

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6, 2002: Kerry repeatedly expressed skepticism about launching an American attack on Iraq without broad international support — though he never explicitly said that he would oppose a resolution authorizing Bush to invade when the Senate votes, probably this week.

“I am prepared to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and destroy his weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry declared. “I would be willing to be the first to put my uniform back on and go defend this country. But I don’t think we should pretend that protecting the security of our nation is defined by turning our back on a century of effort … to build an international structure of law and to live by those standards.” Kerry, citing his experience as a Vietnam veteran, was most impassioned in defending the right of critics to ask questions and dissent from Bush’s policy.

“We need to understand that you have to ask those questions now, because you don’t go to war as a matter of first resort; you go to war as a matter of last resort,” he said.

Prior to voting for the resolution, Kerry spoke at length on the Senate floor and called on Bush to work out a diplomatic solution or, if not, gain support of allies to join the U.S.-led fight against Iraq.

Kerry, Oct. 9, 2002: Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the president is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.

In giving the president this authority, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days–to work with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution setting out tough and immediate inspection requirements, and to act with our allies at our side if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. If he fails to do so, I will be among the first to speak out.

If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent–and I emphasize “imminent”‘–threat to this country which requires the president to respond in a way that protects our immediate national security needs.

In the five months after the Senate vote and before the war started, Kerry was simultaneously running for his party’s presidential nomination and speaking out against the Bush administration for failing to do enough to secure a diplomatic resolution or build a war coalition.

Hours before Bush announced the start of the war, Kerry criticized the administration for “a failure of diplomacy of a massive order.”

Boston Globe, March 19, 2002: “It’s the way they have conducted the diplomacy that has compounded this problem, split the UN, split the NATO, left the world wondering with questions, engaged in a more preemptive effort than was necessary,” Kerry said. “We could have moved from a position of strength, in my judgment, and I think it represents a failure of diplomacy of a massive order, and that is what war is: War is the failure of diplomacy.”

(Then a Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel was also critical of the administration’s approach to the imminent war, even though he, too, gave the president the authority to do so. In a March 3, 2003, article, the Los Angeles Times described Hagel as “the congressional Republican most critical of the administration’s strategy for confronting Saddam Hussein.”)

After the war started, Kerry defended his vote to give the president the power to invade Iraq on more than one occasion. In addition to the May 2003 debate, Kerry also told reporters in August 2004 that he would have voted for the resolution even if he had known that the U.S. couldn’t find any weapons of mass destruction.

Washington Post, Aug. 10, 2004: On Friday, Bush challenged Kerry to answer whether he would support the war “knowing what we know now” about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that U.S. and British officials were certain were there.

In response, Kerry said: “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.”

But Kerry has charged that the president and his advisers badly mishandled the war, and in the news conference he posed sharp questions for Bush.

“Why did we rush to war without a plan to win the peace?” he asked. “Why did you rush to war on faulty intelligence and not do the hard work necessary to give America the truth?”

“Why did he mislead America about how he would go to war?” he added. “Why has he not brought other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way they deserve it and relieve the pressure on the American people?”

The Bush campaign accused Kerry of flip-flopping on Iraq. Kerry and his supporters pushed back hard at those allegations by insisting the Democrat was “honest, consistent and right.”

It’s not inconsistent for Kerry to authorize Bush to go to war and then criticize the president’s execution of the war. But for Kerry to say he “opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq” ignores the ample record that shows the Democrat agreed with Bush that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and should be forcibly removed from power, and it ignores his vote that allowed Bush to do just that.

— Eugene Kiely