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Twenty years ago: The debate we should have had on Iraq

Feb 06,2023 - Last updated at Feb 06,2023

Twenty years ago this month, the US was rushing headlong into war with Iraq, one of the most consequential travesties in modern American history. Here’s how one congressman and I tried and failed to get the Democratic Party on record opposing that war.

After 9/11, neoconservatives began their campaign to invade Iraq. Their arguments included: that Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorists; that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was secretly buying components to build a nuclear bomb; that the US was attacked because our enemies saw us as weak, and to demonstrate our strength and resolve we needed a decisive victory somewhere (anywhere); and that a complete victory in Iraq would be quick, easy, require few troops, be welcomed by the Iraqi people, and result in the establishment of a friendly stable democracy.

These outright fabrications or, at the very least, matters that demanded vigorous debate were not challenged. The mainstream media largely served as an echo chamber for the war-hawks, and most leading politicians were shy to criticise.

In advance of the February 2003 meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and I submitted a resolution to encourage debate on the impending war. Using temperate and respectful language, it called on our party to urge the Bush administration “to pursue diplomatic efforts to achieve disarmament of Iraq, to clearly define for the American people and Congress the objectives, costs, consequences, terms and length of commitment envisioned by any US engagement or action in Iraq, and to continue to operate in the context of and seek the full support of the United Nations in any effort to resolve the current crisis in Iraq”.

Polling indicated that the majority of Americans and a supermajority of Democrats supported these positions. And we knew that if Democrats failed to challenge the rush to war, we would not only risk losing the support of voters, but also shirk our responsibility to avert a war that would prove devastating to our country and the Middle East region.

At the DNC meeting, party leaders subjected me to intense pressure to withdraw the resolution. They argued that we needed to defer to the Democratic presidential candidates. With only one major candidate, Howard Dean, vigorously opposed to the war, they claimed that such a resolution would imply support for his candidacy. And, in their view, opposing the war would make it appear that the party was weak on national defence.

I refused to withdraw the resolution and insisted on my right to introduce it and be heard.

In my remarks to the committee, I warned that it was unconscionable that we send young men and women to war in a country whose history, culture and social composition we did not understand. I observed that the administration’s miscalculations about Iraq risked beginning “a war without end” and that going to war without UN authorisation jeopardised US legitimacy. I concluded by noting that "raising the right questions, demanding answers and winning allies to our case is not being weak on defense. It's being smart on defence". 

After my presentation, the chair ruled that there would be no vote and the resolution died without debate or discussion.

Twenty years later, it gives me no satisfaction to say that we were right to oppose that disastrous war. Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed; countless others’ lives were shattered by the war’s consequences. While the neoconservatives told Congress that the war would cost $2 billion, the price tag is in the trillions and still growing. Instead of extinguishing extremism, the war fuelled it, metastasising into ever more virulent forms. And America emerged from the war weaker and less respected, while Iran emerged emboldened to project its menacing, meddlesome behaviour into the broader region.

Passing our resolution would not have stopped the Bush administration’s march to war. At least, however, the Democrats would have been on record in opposition, potentially strengthening the resolve of members of Congress to speak out more forcefully and voice their dissent. That is how a democracy is supposed to work. And when it does not, we all pay a steep price.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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