the Trump administration’s saber-rattling toward Iran threatens another
disastrous war in the Middle East, foreign policy has gained newfound focus in
the 2020 presidential race. And former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2002 vote in
favor of the Iraq War leaves him with a particularly glaring vulnerability.
Biden’s vote had already become a sticking point in the race before President Trump began his provocations toward Iran in earnest. Bernie Sanders has used Biden’s record to draw a contrast with his own opposition to the Iraq War. Rep. Seth Moulton, another 2020 candidate, has called for Biden to admit he was wrong for casting the vote. And a recent poll showed more than 40 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 were less likely to back Biden because of it.
But to say the now-Democratic frontrunner voted for the Iraq War doesn’t fully describe his role in what has come to be widely acknowledged as the most disastrous foreign policy decision of the 21st century. A review of the historical record shows Biden didn’t just vote for the war—he was a leading Democratic voice in its favor, having played an important role in persuading the public of its necessity and, more broadly, laying the groundwork for former President George W. Bush’s invasion.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, Biden stood as a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy, chairing the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As President Bush attempted to sell the US public on the war, Biden became one of the administration’s steadfast allies in this cause, backing claims about the supposed threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and insisting on the necessity of removing him from power.
Biden did attempt to placate Democrats by criticizing Bush on procedural grounds while largely affirming his case for war, even as he painted himself as an opponent of Bush and the war in front of liberal audiences. In the months leading up to and following the invasion, Biden would make repeated, contradictory statements about his position on the issue, eventually casting himself as an unrepentant backer of the war effort just as the public and his own party began to sour on it.
In November 2002, just a little over a year following the World Trade Center attacks, Biden faced re-election amidst a political climate in which the Bush administration had incited nationalist sentiment over the issue of terrorism. In October 2001, Biden had been criticized in Delaware newspapers for comments that were perceived as potentially weak, warning that the United States could be seen as a “high-tech bully” if it failed to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan and instead relied on a protracted bombing campaign to oust the Taliban.
Consequently, Biden, then deemed to be the Democratic Party’s “de facto spokesman on the war against terrorism,” quickly became a close ally of the Bush administration in its prosecution of that war. The White House installed a special secure phone line to Biden’s home, and he and three other members of Congress met privately with Bush in October 2001 to come up with a positive public relations message for the war in Afghanistan.
Biden’s stance on Iraq soon began to change, too. In November 2001, Biden had batted away suggestions of regime change, saying the United States should defeat al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before thinking about other targets. By February 2002, he appeared to have creaked open the door to the possibility of an invasion.
“If Saddam Hussein is still there five years from now, we are in big trouble,” he told a crowd of 400 Delaware National Guard officers that month at the annual Officers Call event.
“It would be unrealistic, if not downright foolish, to believe we can claim victory in the war on terrorism if Saddam is still in power,” he said around the same time, echoing the language of hawks like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Biden soon developed the position he would hold for the following 13 months leading into Bush’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq.