By: Greg Mitchell
When Congress in October 2002 voted to give President Bush a free hand to wage war against Iraq, not many in the press saw it as a landmark, perhaps even a turning point, in U.S. history. But ever since the war went bad — almost three years ago now — the vote has gained increased significance, something to hail or lament (as a modern Gulf of Tonkin resolution) or an albatross to hang around a political candidate’s neck. John Kerry never could explain his vote in favor of the resolution during the 2004 presidential race. Now he says he regrets his vote, but Hillary Clinton, who is in the same bind, refuses to renounce it.
Those who favor the war, from President Bush on down, frequently invoke the bipartisan vote in both the House and Senate as proof that Democrats, too, believed that Saddam had WMDs and felt he should be removed from power. But how did newspapers feel about the vote then? And will any of them promise that next time — let’s say, if a showdown with Iran or North Korea looms, or we are asked to join the current conflict on the side of Israel — they will be more vigilant about backing a blank check for a war-threatening president?
An E&P survey of editorials in more than a dozen major papers around that October 2002 vote finds that few sounded any alarms. The Washington Post was typical in backing Congress’ decision to give Bush “broad authority … to move against Iraq.” The editorial suggested that it was not a “declaration of war” and “the course of U.S. policy is not yet set.” Of course, Bush would later act as if it were equivalent to a declaration of war, and there is much evidence that U.S. plans for an invasion were indeed pretty well “set” at that time.
The Post, like most others, reasoned that passing this measure would give the White House a diplomatic club to use against Saddam — and the United Nations — to possibly prevent a war. In the end, it paved the way for using far more lethal “clubs.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Times forthrightly declared that the resolution “gives too much power to this and, potentially, future presidents to attack nations unilaterally based on mere suspicions. This could fundamentally change the nation’s approach to foreign policy. … Now that the resolution has passed, Congress and the American people should urge the president to interpret his mandate narrowly.”
The editorial even invoked the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, in which legislators, it recalled, were “misled” into giving President Lyndon Johnson powers in August 1964 to send many more troops to Vietnam. We all know how that turned out.
Alas, the great majority of papers skewed much closer to the hawkish Washington Post line.
The Chicago Tribune went so far as to praise “the willingness of Congress to place its faith in Bush.” It also approvingly quoted Sen. John Warner advising that a war resolution “is not an act of war. It is an act to deter war.” The Wall Street Journal praised Senate Democrats for backing the measure “at crunch time.”
Denver’s Rocky Mountain News found the administration’s case “certainly persuasive.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expressed approval but warned that Bush “must not imagine that the Iraq resolution can be used” like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution “to proceed to full-scale war.”
A New York Times editorial on Oct. 11, 2002, offered no judgment on the resolution, but, accepting the WMD reports by its reporter Judith Miller, among others, noted that for the time being “Saddam Hussein seems unlikely to strike out wildly with his chemical and biological weapons.”
But some papers did raise serious concerns about the resolution. The Boston Globe said, “The text is not as restrictive as it should have been,” adding that it should have forced the president to come back to Congress and ask for explicit permission to go to war if Saddam ever opened his country to U.N. inspectors (which he did) or if the Security Council refused to back an invasion (it did refuse).
The San Francisco Chronicle saluted those in Congress who “raised the right questions about the propriety of sanctioning a war before all diplomatic options were exhausted.” The Chronicle warned that the resolution “emboldens the hawkish factions within the Bush administration who have been agitating for a military confrontation with Iraq since the day of our 43rd president’s inauguration.”
That editorial closed with a sad reflection: “There were simply too few voices of reason and restraint on Capitol Hill this week.” And on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers. What will they do next time?