Kerry’s claim that he opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq

September 10, 2013

(Shawn Thew/EPA)

“You know, Senator Chuck Hagel, when he was senator, Senator Chuck Hagel, now secretary of defense, and when I was a senator, we opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq, but we know full well how that evidence was used to persuade all of us that authority ought to be given.”

— Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in an interview with MSNBC, Sept. 5, 2013

This is at least the second time since becoming secretary that Kerry has asserted that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq while serving as a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. The first time the Kerry made this claim, during a student forum in Ethiopia, his statement mysteriously disappeared from the official State Department transcript.

But then he said it again, on television, also dragging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel into the mix. So let’s take a trip back in time and see what Kerry actually said in 2003.

The Facts

When it comes to war, Kerry often takes a highly nuanced position. He voted against the congressional resolution authorizing force in the 1991 Gulf War, but voted for the 2002 resolution that supported military action against Iraq.  Both votes turned out to be bad political bets.

When Kerry opposed the 1991 resolution, he complained that the George H.W. Bush administration had done too little to involve the rest of the world in its campaign to oust Iraq from Kuwait. But in 2002, he praised the coalition that had been formed for the first Gulf War, in part to complain that George W. Bush had thus far failed to secure the same level of cooperation.

When Kerry voted for the 2002 resolution, he warned he would not support war if Bush failed to win the support of the international community in the absence of an imminent threat. “Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the president is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies,” Kerry said.

But Kerry also said that the burden to avoid war was on the Iraqi leader: “Saddam Hussein has a choice: He can continue to defy the international community, or he can fulfill his longstanding obligations to disarm. He is the person who has brought the world to this brink of confrontation.”

Thus, as the war approached in early 2003, Kerry appeared generally supportive, though critical of the administration’s diplomatic efforts. He was listed in news reports as one of the Democratic presidential aspirants who backed an invasion, though some reporters noted the Hamlet quality of his remarks.

As the Los Angeles Times headlined one article in January of that year, “On Iraq, Kerry Appears Either Torn or Shrewd.”   The newspaper noted that “virtually all of Kerry’s rivals for the 2004 Democratic nomination believe he is trying to straddle the issue by shifting his emphasis at different times and for different audiences.”

By the time of the March invasion, after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s United Nations presentation on Iraq’s alleged weapons,  Kerry backed the attack, according to articles that appeared in the Boston Globe (and which were written by one of his current aides at the State Department).

“It appears that with the deadline for exile come and gone, Saddam Hussein has chosen to make military force the ultimate weapons inspections enforcement mechanism,” Kerry said. “If so, the only exit strategy is victory. This is our common mission and the world’s cause. We’re in this together. We want to complete the mission while safeguarding our troops, avoiding innocent civilian casualties, disarming Saddam Hussein, and engaging the community of nations to rebuild Iraq,” he said.

Kerry criticized what he called “a failure of diplomacy of a massive order” but told the Globe that if he were president, he may not have been able to avoid war.

In fact, during a Democratic presidential debate on May 3, two days after Bush prematurely declared “mission accomplished,” Kerry said: “I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.”

Similarly, Hagel — who later also emerged as a harsh critic of the administration’s handling of the war — voted for the 2002 resolution and also supported the invasion.

“This war is bigger than just killing Saddam Hussein,” Hagel told CBS News on March 21, 2003. “The fact is, as we have stated for 12 years, his regime has been in violation of the United Nations resolutions. His regime has possessed, or probably still does possess, weapons of mass destruction. So we shouldn’t personalize it. We should dismantle his regime, disarm his regime and work with the people of Iraq and in that region to give that country a new start, and hopefully that will be a start with democratic institutions and freedom for all people.”

A Kerry aide sent The Fact Checker a few clips of comments that Kerry made in 2004, as he was challenging Bush for the presidency, that that if he had been president and had access to the same intelligence that Bush had, he would not have gone to war in Iraq. But that’s not the same as claiming he opposed the decision to attack Iraq in 2003.

The Pinocchio Test

Many politicians have a tendency to look back at their past statements with rose-colored glasses.  But given that Kerry has now twice in recent months made the claim that he opposed the war in Iraq, this is clearly not a case of a momentary slip-up.

For Kerry, the uncomfortable fact remains that he voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq, he believed the intelligence that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he said there was little choice but to launch an invasion to disarm him. Kerry may have been highly critical of Bush’s diplomatic efforts in advance of the invasion, but that is not the same thing as opposing the war when it started.

It’s time for the secretary to stop making this claim. In trying to make a distinction between his vote to authorize the war and his later dismay at how it turned out, Kerry earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler | September 9, 2013