By DAN K. THOMASSON
The thorniest question in the current free for all for both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations unfortunately may be one that is also highly unfair and actually irrelevant — whether the candidate voted for the resolution supporting the invasion of Iraq. Well, who cares?
It is not unlike holding one accountable in 1968 for voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which completely changed the nature of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Nearly everyone did. Both resolutions were based on assumptions that later turned out to be false and, in the case of the Tonkin Gulf on an event that may not even have happened.
But faced with the available information at hand both times few members of Congress were willing to vote “no.”
In both instances, voting for or against the military action called for was (as historically is often the case) a political crapshoot. If the assumptions proved to be correct and the war goes well, all the supporters are home free. If it turns out badly, of course, all the supporters are held accountable. But few have the courage to deny a president his wishes in these cases when presented with what seemed to be a credible reason for proceeding. Once engaged, troop support then tempers opposition.
The vote on the resolution in the Senate authorizing the invasion was overwhelmingly in favor, 77 to 23, and included a “yes” from Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware. It also received support from the leading Republican candidate, John McCain of Arizona, and one of the Senate’s leading war critics, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is contemplating a run for his party’s nomination. Another declared Republican candidate for the nomination, Sam Brownback of Kansas, also voted for the resolution.
As the candidates begin actively stumping in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina the leading contenders are being bombarded by questions about why they voted for what a growing number of Americans consider a disaster. In New Hampshire, Clinton, considered the frontrunner, particularly has found herself on the defensive. Only her closest challenger, the charismatic Sen. Barrack Obama of Illinois, has dodged the interrogation, actually using his “from the beginning” opposition to the Iraq invasion as a leading issue, especially in Iowa.
Well, as the candidate said to his stuttering opponent, that’s easy enough for him to say since he was never faced with the dilemma. Obama wasn’t in the Senate when the vote was taken and never had to make the difficult decision his opponents did. As a member of the Illinois legislature, he may have spoken out against the invasion, but saying he would have voted against it had he actually been there doesn’t count. By the time he was running for the U.S. Senate being an opponent to the war was where most candidates wanted to be as the polls reflected a growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq situation. The young senator also has been criticized for saying American lives have been “wasted,” the use of a word for which he apologized, obviously realizing its implication.
Using the vote on the resolution to gauge one’s current position on the war is, therefore, clearly more than a bit unfair. The honest way to answer such accusations is to point out that intelligence presented to the Senate by the Bush Administration at the time might have been proved dead wrong later, but only a fool would have ignored it at the time. In Clinton’s case, her husband’s administration was given some of the same intelligence and believed it, too.
Where one stands now is what matters. It is safe to predict that every candidate in the race in both parties would move heaven and earth to bring about a conclusion to this bloodshed and find a way out of what has become a Middle East quagmire. The argument is over how and how quickly that can proceed. If voting for the resolution were irresponsible, completely pulling out on a moment’s notice would be even more so.
While Obama — who has far less experience than any candidate in the field — has laid out a plan to re-deploy troops and a timetable for withdrawing forces altogether, Clinton and others have wisely avoided doing so, clearly understanding that committing oneself to any course of action beyond the general pledge to end the situation would be chancy at this stage.
So, in the end, how one voted on the resolution has no meaning. The 23 senators who voted against it can crow all they want, but none of them are running for president and they could just as easily have been wrong.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)