Hillary Clinton greeting U.S. military personnel. Photo by Corwin Colbert.
In 2002, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York voted to authorize the Iraq War; her rival for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, opposed it. Clinton’s vote continues to haunt her on the campaign trail—and for good reason.
First, there are the consequences of that illegal and unnecessary war: 4,500 American soldiers killed and thousands more permanently disabled; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths; the destabilization of the region with the rise of ISIS; and a dramatic increase in the federal deficit, resulting in major cutbacks to important social programs.
Clinton’s vote, which she now professes to regret, raises troubling implications regarding her role as a potential commander-in-chief.
The United Nations Charter forbids member states from using military force unless they are under direct attack or receive explicit authorization by the U.N. Security Council. (Customary international law allows for pre-emptive war, but only in cases of an imminent threat, such as troops massing along the border or missiles preparing to be launched.)
Clinton now claims the vote was simply meant to pressure Saddam Hussein to allow inspectors back in and that it had the support of Hans Blix, head of the U.N. inspection team. But the bill she supported in October 2002 gave President Bush blanket authority to attack Iraq. When he did so in March 2003, despite inspectors having been in Iraq for over three months with unfettered access to Iraqi facilities, she supported that decision.
Some Clinton supporters have defended her, saying she had received convincing intelligence data that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction.” Even if that had been the case, the war would still have been just as illegal and just as unwise.
Furthermore, virtually all the alleged intelligence data made available to Congress has since been declassified; most strategic analysts have found it transparently weak, based largely on hearsay by Iraqi exiles of dubious credibility and conjecture by ideologically driven Bush administration officials. Meanwhile, Clinton ignored information provided by U.N. inspectors, reports by independent strategic analysts, and articles in reputable arms control journals that challenged the administration’s claims.
She was also the only Democratic senator to make the absurd claim—strongly challenged by scholars, diplomats and other observers—that the secular Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was supporting the Salafist Islamist Al-Qaeda movement. And more than a year after the U.S. invasion and the Bush administration's acknowledgement that Iraq had neither any WMDs nor any ties to Al-Qaeda, Clinton insisted it was “the right vote,” adding “I don’t regret giving the president authority.
This raises concerns that, as president, Clinton might again be willing to blindly accept similarly inaccurate and alarmist intelligence claims over more sober strategic analysis in making decisions on whether to go to war.
In fact, roughly 30 countries (including the United States) really do have chemical or biological weapons and/or nuclear programs with weapons potential, thereby raising the question as to how many of these countries Clinton, as president, would be willing to invade.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.