• Iraq
  • February 25, 2008
  • 17 minutes read

Why Hillary Clinton’s Iraq Vote Does Matter

Why Hillary Clinton’s Iraq Vote Does Matter

In response to a series of articles in recent months regarding the foreign policy positions of Senator Hillary Clinton – in which, among other things, I have emphasized her October 2002 vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq – I have received comments such as the following:

“The only mistake Hillary made was to believe what the President told her and that Dubya would not lie about such a national matter involving the military. She chose to believe what he said and the intel presented to her -as did so many others on both sides of the political aisle…. GET OVER IT! It is water under the bridge…”

In reality, however, Hillary Clinton’s decision to vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq in fact is of critical importance and should disqualify her – along with Senator John McCain, who also voted in favor of the war resolution – from ever becoming president.

There have been many tragic consequences of the war for which Senator Clinton and others who made it possible should be held accountable: the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and the tens of thousands permanently wounded; the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed; the hundreds of billions of dollars drained from our national treasury; the social, economic and environmental damage inflicted upon Iraq; the misallocation of human and material resources away from real strategic threats; and, the resulting growth in Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism which will threaten our national security for decades to come .

More importantly, however, is what the decision says about Hillary Clinton’s world view:

Contempt for International Law

According to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, international treaties signed by the president and ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Senate are to be treated as supreme law of the United States. Among these is the United Nations Charter, long recognized as the most important single document regulating the use of military force in the post-World War II era.

Senator Clinton has defended her vote on the grounds of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions being violated by Iraq. However, in articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter, the nations of the world agreed that no member state has the right to enforce any resolution militarily unless the Security Council determines that there has been a material breach of its resolution, decides that all non-military means of enforcement have been exhausted, and specifically authorizes the use of military force. This is what the Security Council did in November 1990 with Resolution 678 in response to Iraq’s ongoing occupation of Kuwait in violation of a series of resolutions demanding withdrawal. When Iraq finally complied through its forced evacuation from Kuwait in February of 1991, this resolution became moot.

Legally, the conflict regarding access for UN inspectors and possible Iraqi procurement of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) had always been between Iraq and the United Nations, not between Iraq and the United States. The United States therefore had no legal right to act on the dispute unilaterally. Although UN Security Council Resolution 687, which demands Iraqi disarmament, was the most detailed in the world body’s history, no military enforcement mechanisms were included. Nor did the Security Council specify any military enforcement mechanisms in subsequent resolutions. As is normally the case when it is determined that governments are violating all or part of UN resolutions, any decision about enforcement is a matter for the Security Council as a whole – not for any one member of the council.

While UN Security Council resolution 1441, passed in November 2002, warned of unspecified “serious consequences” if Iraq failed to comply with the UN disarmament and inspections regime, the resolution also made clear that only the weapons inspectors – not UN member states – had the authority to report Iraqi violations. In the lead-up to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, the inspectors did not report any Iraqi violations of serious consequence. Furthermore, the resolution stated that the Security Council “remains seized of the matter,” reiterating the fact that only the council itself had the authority to approve the use of force

It is noteworthy, then, that Senator Clinton voted against an amendment sponsored by Senator Carl Levin that would have authorized U.S. military action against Iraq if the UN Security Council approved the use of force and instead voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing.

If Senator Clinton believes the United States can unilaterally claim the right to invade Iraq because of that country’s violation of Security Council resolutions, other Council members could logically also claim the right to invade other states that are in material breach of UN Security Council resolutions, such as Israel, Morocco, Turkey, Armenia, Pakistan and India . Her insistence on the right of the United States to unilaterally invade foreign countries because of alleged violations of UN Security Council resolutions seriously undermines the principle of collective security and the authority of the United Nations and thereby opens the door to international anarchy.

International law is quite clear about when military force is allowed. In addition to the aforementioned case of UN Security Council authorization, the only other time the UN Charter allows a member state to use armed force is described in Article 51, which states that it is permissible for “individual or collective self-defense” against “armed attack…until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” Since none of these criteria were met, the U.S. invasion was clearly a violation of the UN Charter, as acknowledged by the UN Secretary General and the majority of member states. Clinton’s support for the war, therefore, demonstrates her belief that the United States should not be bound by its international legal obligations.

There is a tradition in customary international law that does allow for a pre-emptive strike for self-defense, but this is only in an indisputable case of a clear and present danger, such as troops massing along a border poised for invasion or missiles being loaded onto launchers in preparation for an attack. It does not, as Senator Clinton claims, give the United States the right to invade a country on the far side of the world based upon unsubstantiated allegations that that country might be developing weapons that might be passed on to terrorists that might then some day be used against us.

The October 2002 war resolution essentially constituted a renunciation of the UN Charter’s prohibition against such wars of aggression and effectively constituted a repudiation of the post-WWII international legal order. Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize this illegal invasion, therefore, demonstrates her contempt for international law and is indicative that, as president, she will not hesitate to violate international legal norms in order to advance American hegemony.

Contempt for the Truth

In the months leading up to the Iraq war vote, Senator Clinton was briefed by a number of arms control specialists, former arms inspectors, strategic analysts, and others who informed her that the Bush administration’s WMD claims were not to be taken seriously and that Iraq had achieved at least qualitative disarmament.

Despite this, in an apparent effort to discredit those questioning the administration’s hyperbolic statements about Iraq’s supposed military threat and to justify her vote to authorize the invasion, Senator Clinton insisted that Iraq’s possession of chemical and biological weapons was “not in doubt” and was “undisputed.” In reality, she knew there were serious doubts about Iraq’s purported possession of such weapons at that time and, indeed, no such weapons were ever found.

Similarly, even after the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report prior to the war vote that Iraq no longer had a nuclear program and despite the 2001 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that confirmed there was no evidence that such work on Iraq’s nuclear program had resumed, Senator Clinton also defended her vote by claiming that, “If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will . . . keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.” In reality, Iraq had completely eliminated its nuclear program a full decade earlier.

Although top strategic analysts also correctly informed her that there were no apparent links between Saddam Hussein’s secular nationalist regime and the radical Islamist al-Qaeda, Senator Clinton insisted that Saddam “has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members.” This came despite a subsequent definitive report by the Department of Defense which noted that not only did no such link exist, but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based upon the evidence available at that time.

Clinton’s supporters have defended her false pre-invasion allegations by citing the public summary of the 2002 NIE which appeared to confirm some of the Bush administration’s claims. However, there were a number of reasons to have been skeptical of this summary: this NIE was compiled in a much shorter time frame than is normally provided for such documents and the report expressed far more certainty regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities than all the reports from the previous five years, despite the lack of additional data to justify such a shift. When the report was released, there was much stronger dissent within the intelligence community than about any other NIE in history and the longer classified version, which was available to every member of Congress, included these dissenting voices from within the intelligence community. It was also well-known through media reports at that time that the administration was applying enormous pressure on the intelligence agencies to put together a report emphasizing the alleged Iraqi threat.

Despite this, the NIE also challenged the notion of any operational ties between the Iraqi government and Al-Qaeda and questioned some of the more categorical claims by President Bush about Iraq’s WMDs. However, Senator Clinton didn’t even bother to read it. She now claims that it wasn’t necessary for her to have actually looked at the 92-page document herself because she was briefed on the contents of the report. However, since no one on her staff was authorized to read it, it’s unclear who could have actually briefed her.

Whether Senator Clinton lied in order to frighten the American people into accepting a costly U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country or whether she was simply naïve and ignorant, her false statements regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities – given that this was her central argument in justifying the invasion – raises serious questions regarding her fitness to become president of the United States. There is little reason to doubt, therefore, that she would again be willing to either lie or to blindly accept transparently inaccurate and alarmist intelligence data in order to lead America into another tragic war.

Indeed, Senator Clinton later admitted that she supported the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq regardless of the fact that Iraq did not really threaten U.S. national security. Many months after the U.S. invasion and the formal acknowledgement that Iraq neither had any WMDs or WMD programs nor any ties to Al-Qaeda, Senator Clinton declared, “I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote” and was one that “I stand by.”

Contempt for Good Judgment

Senator Clinton was also briefed by scholars of the Middle East, Middle Eastern political leaders, former State Department and intelligence officials and others who recognized that a U.S. invasion would likely result in a bloody insurgency, a rise in Islamist extremism and terrorism, increased sectarian and ethnic conflict, and related problems. Few people familiar with Iraq have been at all surprised that the U.S. invasion has become such a tragedy. Therefore, claims by Senator Clinton that she was unaware of the likely consequences of the invasion are completely false.

Indeed, one need not be an expert on the Middle East to recognize that a U.S. invasion and occupation of a large Arab country with such a strong tradition of nationalism and resistance to outsiders result in a major insurgency.

Senator Clinton also naively accepted the idea that the Bush administration – which was serving as the primary foreign backer of the autocratic Mubarak government in Egypt, Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank, Moroccan occupation forces in Western Sahara, the family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the medieval sultanate of Oman, the military regime of Pakistan, and the crypto-communist rulers of Uzbekistan – was sincerely motivated to promote democracy in Iraq. She also failed to recognize that a unilateral invasion and occupation by a Western power with such a record of supporting repressive regimes around the world and with a growing dependence on imported natural resources located within the country in question would be seen by the subjected population not as liberators to be welcomed but as conquerors to be resisted.

Clinton also appeared to naively assume that a stable liberal democracy could flourish in a country that had never had a democratic government, that was an artificial creation thrown together from three Ottoman provinces by colonial powers and that had only been truly independent for 45 years, and where fighting between Arabs and Kurds and between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands in recent decades. She also assumed that the right-wing neoconservatives in the Bush administration would have the ability and interest in creating conditions that could lead to a stable democratic system.

Clearly, then, despite her much-touted “experience,” Senator Clinton has demonstrated, through her support for the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of U.S. military force.

Hillary Clinton’s World View

The 2002 vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not like the vote on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the use of force against North Vietnam, for which Congress had no time for hearings or debate and for which most of those supporting it (mistakenly) thought they were simply authorizing limited short-term retaliatory strikes in response to a specific series of alleged incidents. By contrast, prior to her vote in support of the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Senator Clinton had many months to investigate the administration’s claims that Iraq was a threat as well as the likely implications of a U.S. invasion. She also surely recognized that the resolution authorized a full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation and a subsequent military occupation of an indefinite period.

In voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq, then, Senator Clinton has offered a clear demonstration of how she would approach international affairs and security policy:

* the United States need not abide by its international legal obligations, including those prohibiting wars of aggression;

* claims by right-wing Republican officials and unreliable foreign exiles regarding a foreign government’s military capabilities are a more legitimate basis for analyzing possible security threats than are empirical studies by independent arms control analysts and United Nations inspectors;

*concerns expressed by scholars and others knowledgeable of the likely reaction by the subjected population to a foreign conquest and the likely complications that would result should be ignored and faith should instead be placed on the occupation policies forcibly imposed upon that population by a corrupt right-wing Republican administration.

There are also a number of reasons to suspect that, if elected president, Senator Clinton could lead the United States into yet another disastrous war:

* she has refused to apologize for her vote to authorize the invasion, indicating her willingness to support another aggressive war in the future

* she has repeatedly threatened the use of military force against Iran and voted in favor the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which many fear the administration could use as justification for launching military action against that country

* just as she falsely claimed Iraq had a nuclear weapons program back in 2002, she also falsely claimed just last year that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, even though International Atomic Energy Agency and independent arms control specialists at that time, as well as a subsequent NIE report, indicated that this was untrue

As a result, Senator Clinton’s October 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq is not simply “water under the bridge.” It is very relevant and says a lot about what kind of president she would be.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle East studies.