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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pelosi’s Flawed History Lesson

Rep. Nancy Pelosi mistakenly claimed that President Clinton launched an airstrike in 1999 after the House rejected the use of military force in a tie vote. Actually, U.S. and NATO forces had attacked Serbia five weeks before the House vote.

The House Democratic leader spoke to reporters Sept. 3 after a White House meeting designed to rally congressional support for President Obama’s call for limited airstrikes in Syria. Pelosi, who supports the president’s plan, was asked if Obama can go forward with a military attack in Syria even if Congress votes against it.

She used the question to “remind” reporters what happened in 1999, recalling – incorrectly – that “the planes were really ready to go” into Serbia when the House failed to support military air operations by a vote of 213 to 213. [Note: The transcript shows that Pelosi said “the planes were really ready to go into Bosnia,” but her spokesman, Drew Hammill, said she misspoke and meant Serbia.]

Question: If Congress does reject this, can the president proceed if Congress rejects?

Pelosi: I don’t think Congress will reject. But I do want to remind you because the – I’ve been reading some of what some of you have written and say the president has never gone forward if Congress has not approved, when it has taken up the issue. I remind you that in 1999, President Clinton brought us all together, similar to this meeting here, but over a period of time to talk about going into the Balkans and the vote was 213-213, 187 Republicans voted ‘no,’ 180 Democrats voted ‘yes,’ about 30 on each side, something like that, went in a different way than the majority of their party. And that was when the planes were really ready to go into Bosnia [sic]. He went. And you know what happened there. So, I don’t – I don’t think that the congressional authorization is necessary. I do think it’s a good thing. And I hope that we can achieve it.

Pelosi is correct about the House vote, but it occurred five weeks after the military air campaign had already started. It’s true that both Clinton and Obama faced a skeptical Congress, but Clinton did not wait for both Houses to act before taking military action.

Peace negotiations between U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic failed to produce an agreement, and Clinton on March 23 met with 40 members of Congress to make his case for military action. That evening, the Senate voted 58-41 on a nonbinding concurrent resolution, sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, “authorizing the President of the United States to conduct military air operations and missile strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).”

But the House did not immediately vote on the Senate’s use-of-force resolution. Nearly two weeks earlier, on March 11, the House voted 219-191 to give its conditional support for U.S. troops to be used in a peacekeeping role — if a peace agreement was reached. But it was not. After the March 23 White House meeting with the president, then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert was quoted in the Washington Times as saying: “Peacekeeping is far different from direct military action. This is a departure from the resolution we passed only last week.”

U.S. and NATO forces started airstrikes in Serbia on March 24 — a day after peace talks collapsed, the president met with members of Congress at the White House and the Senate approved the resolution. In a speech from the Oval Office, Clinton said: “My fellow Americans, today our armed forces joined our NATO allies in airstrikes against Serbian forces responsible for the brutality in Kosovo.” At the time, Kosovo was a province of Serbia.

The House did not act on the Senate’s use-of-force resolution until April 28. By that time, the military campaign was well under way. On April 27, for example, the American Forces Press Service reported that NATO pilots had “destroyed the last bridge across the Danube River” and “have destroyed nearly all of Yugoslavia’s oil refining capability and continue to hit storage areas.” A day later, the resolution failed in the House in a 213-213 tie. Pelosi voted for it, as did most Democrats. The resolution received 181 Democratic votes, 31 Republican votes and 1 independent vote. There were 187 Republican votes and 26 Democratic votes against it.

After the House vote, White House spokesman Jake Siewert said: “We will continue to prosecute the air campaign and to stop the violence being perpetrated by Milosevic.”

We asked Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman, about the Democratic leader’s comments on the 1999 House vote. He said he knows Pelosi is well aware of the timing of the House vote on a use of force resolution because he heard her use the phrase “the planes were in the air” when talking about the 1999 House vote in a Sept. 2 conference call between administration officials and congressional members.

“Her point here is about the suggestion of some in the press that a president has never gone forward (or continued in this case) [with] force if Congress has not approved use of force after considering it. Her point is still valid here,” Hammill said.

We don’t know what Pelosi said during the Labor Day conference call, which was not open to the press. We do know that she was asked at an open press conference “can the president proceed if Congress rejects” his plan for military action, and she gave the example of the House vote in 1999. But Clinton took military action before the House voted in 1999. He got Senate approval and did not wait for the House to act, citing the need to act urgently. There are several instances of presidents taking military action without congressional authority, as Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein writes in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News, so Clinton is not alone in making such a decision. But the question posed to Pelosi was about the president making a decision to use military force after Congress rejects it.

She compounds her mistake by saying “the planes were really ready to go” into Serbia when the House failed to authorize military use, when, in fact, the planes were already there and had been for weeks.

— Eugene Kiely