vision 2020

Iraq Still Matters

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By 2011, U.S. forces had occupied Iraq for eight years. But if the press remembered, it didn’t show. The war accounted for a mere 1 percent of all news coverage throughout all of 2010, the Pew Research Center reported. Nearly a decade later, little has changed. The U.S. is still in Iraq, a fact that remains almost entirely absent from the news. When the press does cover the aftermath of the invasion, its attention is fickle, moved only by events like the rise of ISIS or Donald Trump’s assassination of Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. The architects of the war continue their careers undisrupted by consequence, ensconced in public office and think tanks and the odd university post. But the impunity that shields them doesn’t look quite as impenetrable as it once did. Iraq may be out of the news, but it’s haunting Joe Biden in ways the former vice-president did not appear to anticipate.

Last week, Biden told an Iowa voter he didn’t support the invasion of Iraq at the time of its launch. He opposed it, he said, “from the very moment” George W. Bush announced it, and he told the president as much “right after” it began, CNN reported. But that’s not true, as CNN itself had previously documented. Biden not only voted for the war, in public he supported it with relative enthusiasm, telling an audience at the Brookings Institution in 2003 that “it was the right vote then and would be a correct vote today.”

Biden has since admitted it was a “mistake” to trust the Bush administration to wage war. But as a candidate for president in 2020, he occupies a difficult position. His most threatening competitors for the nomination — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, depending on the poll of the day — either voted against the war, or weren’t in a position to do so. On Iraq, Biden stands alone, and the Sanders campaign is determined to make sure that history matters.

In a statement quoted by Politico, senior Sanders campaign advisor Jeff Weaver said Biden, as a senator, “made explicitly clear” that he supported the war. Weaver added, “It is appalling that after 18 years, Joe Biden still refuses to admit he was dead wrong on the Iraq War, the worst foreign-policy blunder in modern American history.”

The Sanders campaign is right on the substance of its accusation. On a moral basis, Biden’s early position on the war is of profound importance. Even the more hawkish pundits usually concede that the invasion of Iraq proved a catastrophe. But the war was doomed to fail; it was flawed, fatally, from its conception. Biden’s mistake and his subsequent failure to reckon with it should cast doubt on his foreign-policy judgment. Criticizing Biden for his vote suggests, rightly, that there ought to be some cost associated with support for war. On this point, there ought to be no argument. Years after the senators cast their fateful votes, it may not even be possible to accurately calculate the total number of Iraqis and Americans whose deaths can be blamed on the decision to invade. At a minimum, the total is in the tens of thousands, and Trump’s destabilizing foreign policy may lead to further bloodshed in the region. Biden’s support for the war wasn’t just a bloodless political miscalculation but a moral failure with fatal consequences.

The war may have faded out of the public consciousness. In the aggregate, Americans appear divided on whether it was even a mistake: 48 percent told the Pew Research Center in 2018 that the invasion was wrong. Military veterans, meanwhile, are more likely to say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t worth fighting. By contrast, health care is still a greater priority for most voters. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found that 27 percent of voters who are Democratic or lean Democratic rank the issue as their top concern when choosing a candidate to support.

The public may not be calling for a reckoning on Iraq, but one is due nonetheless. The Trump presidency only amplifies a truth that should have been obvious to Democrats a long time ago: America’s foreign policy needs to be dramatically reset. If Biden won’t consistently tell the truth about his record, he undermines his own credibility on one of the most crucial issues a president can directly control. He promises inertia, not accountability and certainly not change. Biden clearly hopes his role in recent history makes the case for his presidency. His Iraq revisionism suggests his past should disqualify him instead.

Joe Biden Can’t Outrun His Vote on Iraq