Int. Perspective Archive

Reconsidering Kerry’s “War Vote”

By Eugene B. Kogan

Washington, D.C., Sep. 28 — President Bush’s campaign persists in asking pointed questions about Senator Kerry’s “vote for war” against Iraq two years ago. The claim that Congress’s Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of October 11, 2002, was a “vote for war” reflects the letter of the resolution, but flies in the face of its spirit.

The measure authorized the President to use force against the “continuing threat posed by Iraq.” On October 8, on the eve of the vote in Congress, Bush delivered a major address to the nation on the Iraqi threat. He said:

“Approving this resolution does not mean that the military action is imminent or unavoidable. This resolution will tell the United Nations, and all nations, that America speaks with one voice.”

This spirit of the resolution was also reflected in the speeches that legislators from both parties made before the vote. Senator John Warner (R-VA) stated that passing the authorization was important to convince Saddam Hussein that American and international resolve is “real, unshakable and enforceable if there is to be a peaceful resolution.” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) said that passing the resolution made diplomatic success at the U.N. “more likely, and, therefore, war less likely.”

The resolution was not a “war vote” because, at the time, the Administration claimed publicly that Bush had not yet made the decision to use force. Rather, Congress voted for diplomacy. The authorization demonstrated the unified resolve of the U.S. government to ensure — by force, as a last resort — that Iraq disarms. Indeed, when he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee on September 19, 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated unequivocally that the proposed authorization “is not a resolution that is a declaration of war to go to war tomorrow.” The measure, Powell continued, “is an expression of support for what he [President Bush] might have to do if the actions that we are trying to take in the multilateral organization, the United Nations Security Council, are not successful.” The congressional action was thus designed to strengthen Secretary Powell’s position as he negotiated the passage of the unanimous U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which put the pressure of the world community on Iraq to accept international inspections. These inspections, had they been allowed to run their full course, would have demonstrated that Iraq was indeed disarmed.

Unfortunately, despite the numerous public statements to the contrary, President Bush was not interested in just ridding Iraq of WMD. Instead, he was focused on changing the Iraqi regime. Already in April 2002, Bush remarked to a British reporter: “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go. That's about all I'm willing to share with you.” That is why Bush did not let the inspections run their course, and proceeded with determination in early 2003 to unseat the Iraqi leader.

Scholars argue that Congress can authorize hostilities either by an authorization to use force or by a declaration of war. Two examples of the former that they can point to are the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7, 1964 and the congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of January 12, 1991. In 1964, after U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin reported to have been fired upon by the North Vietnamese, Congress passed the measure, which came to be known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Lyndon Johnson “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” And in 1991, Congress authorized President George H. W. Bush to use force in order to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 678 and expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In both cases, the Congress was authorizing the prompt use of the United States Armed Forces.

This was not the case in October 2002, when Congress issued an anticipatory authorization to use force, relinquishing its Constitutional right and responsibility to decide when and whether to initiate hostilities against Iraq, and instead passing the buck to President Bush. As a result, the President was left with an unprecedented authority not only to wage war — as is envisioned by Article 2 of the Constitution — but also to declare hostilities between the United States and Iraq, which, as per Article 1, is the responsibility of the Congress.

In hindsight, Congress committed a colossal blunder in October 2002 by giving President Bush such expansive war-making authority. Despite the President’s charged rhetoric about regime change throughout 2002, the Congress allowed itself to be misled by the Administration’s frequent assurances that Bush had not made the decision to use force. In the end, it was right for Congress to demonstrate the nation’s resolve to disarm Iraq and threaten the use of force. It was unnecessary and wrong, however, to allow the President to decide when and whether to use force. Unfortunately, the amendment proposed by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), which reserved for Congress the final decision on whether to use force in case U.N. diplomacy failed, was defeated.

The Bush campaign’s questioning of Senator Kerry’s alleged “war vote” in October 2002 is disingenuous and misleading. The war in Iraq had just one vote in March 2003 — President Bush’s.

Eugene B. Kogan is the John Kenneth Galbraith Fellow at the Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund and Senior Political Analyst at Americans for Informed Democracy in Washington, D.C.