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Congress prepares to repeal the AUMF, which authorized the war in Iraq


In 2002, while working at Rotary International, now Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) watched congressional hearings and administration presentations advocating for war in Iraq, never convinced that Saddam Hussein’s forces posed a serious threat.

But two years later, she joined her Illinois National Guard unit during her tour, becoming one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq. In 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Black Hawk helicopter. The attack ended with the loss of both of his legs, earning him the Purple Heart.

The only senator to regularly use a wheelchair, she does not believe the 2002 war vote was the worst move Congress has taken this century. Instead, what’s worse for her is the nearly 21 years of inaction after that vote, the inability of Congress to debate and pass a new war resolution.

“Our troops show up, again and again and again,” Duckworth said in an interview Wednesday, “and we don’t have the guts here to have a real debate and a real vote every time we want to send them.”

More than two decades after that initial vote, Congress finally seems ready to abandon the 2002 resolution on the Iraq war — one of its most flawed votes ever.

Pressed to vote before the 2002 midterm elections, lawmakers bowed to post-9/11 political pressure and handed the George W. Bush administration the power to wage war in Iraq with little detention.

This spring offers a rare opportunity for a reshuffle, with a bipartisan push in the Senate to formally rescind the 2002 resolution as well as the 1991 war resolution passed after Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. The Senate is poised to pass its bill by Thursday, while the House, which voted bipartisanly to repeal the 2002 resolution two years ago, may resume it later this spring.

For many veterans of those votes in October 2002, change cannot come soon enough. Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), who was serving his fifth term in the House when he voted against the war resolution, sees the endless effects of this consecutive moment.

“It was a horrible vote,” Menendez said Thursday while handling the debate on the floor on the Senate repeal effort. “We have made Iran a power that it was not before. We made al-Qaeda a franchise. It gave birth to the Islamic State and we destabilized the region. It is one of the worst decisions I have seen made in 31 years of foreign policy.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is also prepared to drop wartime resolutions, officially known as authorizations for the use of military force, or AUMFs. But Collins still blames top Bush administration officials for her initial vote, particularly then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who she says told her on the eve of the vote that with the Congressional approval, the United States would be able to “avoid war” and roll back Saddam Hussein.

“The premise that there were weapons of mass destruction turned out to be deeply flawed,” she said Thursday.

Senator Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.), who was in the House at the time, is the rare security hawk who still thinks that vote was worth it, especially if Iraq’s fledgling government becomes a stable democracy.

“Here’s what I would ask people to focus on,” Graham said Thursday. “Is the world better off without Saddam Hussein, and are we better off with a democracy that replaces him? I would say yes.

The ripple effects of that vote continue to this day, especially with the loved ones of those who lost their lives (nearly 300,000 Iraqis and nearly 5,000 American servicemen), but also with a region in disarray as Syria is wracked by civil war and Iran continues its saber-rattling.

In terms of national policy and the role of Congress in overseeing foreign affairs, the fallout has been staggering.

Democrats have watched these votes play out in every presidential election for the past 20 years, especially in 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who was not in the Senate for the votes but spoke against the 2002 AUMF, used Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (DN.Y.) vote for war as a stick against her credibility, narrowly defeating her in the primaries.

Republican voters — especially those in rural areas who paid a higher price, with higher rates of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq than their urban counterparts — recoiled from the traditional national security image of the two Bush and adopted Donald Trump’s “America First” approach. Most of the GOP in Congress remains supportive of American power projection, especially against Russia, but with each new election, the nativist wing grows ever stronger.

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And the popularity of Congress has plummeted. In October 2002, Gallup found that 50% of Americans approved of Congress’ performance, about where approval had been for the previous four years.

By the spring of 2005, as the war dragged on, Congressional approval had fallen below 40% and has not exceeded that threshold since. Last month, Gallup measured it at 18%.

The Senate vote in 2002, 77 to 23, wasn’t even close. All but one of 49 Republicans backed Bush’s war resolution, and 28 of 51 Democrats voted with him.

Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had tried to work on an alternative resolution that would have required the president to return to Congress for a second vote to prove Hussein was an imminent threat. His top adviser, future Secretary of State Antony Blinken, drafted it, while aides to Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) worked on a tougher resolution.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s future White House chief of staff and Biden’s Veterans Affairs secretary, coordinated the efforts as the top foreign policy adviser to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (DS. D.).

But House Minority Leader Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) struck a separate deal with Bush and his advisers, granting them most of their wishes. A week later, each chamber had to vote.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the more liberal members of the House at the time, said he saw his yes vote as a way to support weapons inspectors in the US. United Nations.

“They said if they had the ability to get inspectors to come in – that’s what the vote was – and they didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, they wouldn’t start a war. So they lied that they were going to start a war,” he said, adding, “Obviously I apologize for that vote.

The House vote, 296 to 133, saw a majority of Democrats oppose the war resolution, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rallied opposition against Gephardt and cemented her role as dominant force in this caucus for the next two decades. .

Many lawmakers heard what they wanted to hear, out of political fear and a desire to continue fighting terrorists after the 2001 attack on the United States. Clinton felt pressure as a New Yorker to look tough after the attacks there, but privately told aides she was uncomfortable.

“I can’t believe I signed up for this fucking war,” she muttered to a senior assistant at the time, according to “To Start A War,” Robert Draper’s definitive account of the rush to invade Iraq.

Menendez faced similar political pressures. About 750 New Jerseyans died in the attack on the World Trade Center, but as a junior member of the House he studied the material and found the case unconvincing.

“No clear and present danger to the United States, no imminent threat, and most importantly, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “We’ve come full circle, where I can be the chairman of the foreign relations committee and try to end it.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime member of the intelligence committee, said the doubts were there in classified reports made available to each member. Wyden had an intelligence item declassified the day before the vote, showing the conclusion that Hussein was not plotting any active terrorist action against the United States.

Most senators had already announced their positions; the information made no difference. The march to war was on.

“You make a mistake on these big issues of going to war,” Wyden said, “and the consequences will be felt for years to come. You don’t unravel it easily.

In 2006, after recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Duckworth entered politics. She lost a race for a House seat, then served in the Obama administration’s VA. She won a House race in 2012 and her Senate seat in 2016.

Now she finally has a chance to vote against the war that cost her so much, after watching the 2002 debate as a private citizen.

“I didn’t see anything that convinced me there were weapons of mass destruction,” Duckworth said. “I did not support the war.


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