By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006
Although given little public credit at the time, or since, many of the 126 House Democrats who spoke out and voted against the October 2002 resolution that gave President Bush authority to wage war against Iraq have turned out to be correct in their warnings about the problems a war would create.
With the Democrats taking over control of the House next January, the views that some voiced during two days of debate four years ago are worth recalling, since many of those lawmakers will move into positions of power. They include not only members of the new House leadership but also the incoming chairmen of the Appropriations, Armed Services, Budget and Judiciary committees and the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, was one of several Democrats who predicted during the House floor debate that "the outcome after the conflict is actually going to be the hardest part, and it is far less certain." He credited his views in part to what he heard over breakfasts with retired generals Anthony C. Zinni and Joseph P. Hoar, both of whom had led the U.S. Army's Central Command -- a part of which is in Spratt's district.
"They made the point: We do not want to win this war, only to lose the peace and swell the ranks of terrorists who hate us," Spratt said.
Spratt recently looked back at his resolution, which would have required Bush to come back to Congress before launching an attack. It was defeated 270 to 158. He recalled that extended hearings were held before the Persian Gulf War but that nothing similar preceded the vote on the 2002 resolution. "I remember we talked this time about how we got to get answers before this train leaves the station," Spratt said.
The incoming Armed Services chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), spoke in support of Spratt's amendment, stressing the need for "a plan for rebuilding of the Iraqi government and society, if the worst comes to pass and armed conflict is necessary."
Skelton had written Bush a month earlier, after a White House meeting, to say that "I have no doubt that our military would decisively defeat Iraq's forces and remove Saddam. But like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what we would do after we caught it."
Skelton went on to note the "extreme difficulty of occupying Iraq with its history of autocratic rule, its balkanized ethnic tensions and its isolated economic system." He also warned that Bush's postwar strategy must "take seriously" the possibility that a replacement regime "might be rejected by the Iraqi people, leading to civil unrest and even anarchy."
Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), who will chair the Appropriations Committee, was among the group that organized the Democrats. He spoke then about poor preparation for postwar Iraq, a concern he developed after listening to State Department officials.
He recalled recently that an amendment by Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.) that would have delayed taking action until inspectors from the United Nations completed their work "made sense, but there was no prayer it would pass." It got 72 votes.
Obey said Spratt's amendment was the only approach "that could gather critical mass, and that's what most of us in the caucus settled on."
The number of House Democrats who supported Spratt "was a remarkable achievement," Obey said, "given it meant opposing the president in the wake of 9/11." Obey's district was 70 percent in favor of going into Iraq, he said.
On the House floor more than four years ago, Lee told colleagues: "Our own intelligence agencies report that there is currently little chance of chemical and biological attack from Saddam Hussein on U.S. forces or territories. But they emphasize that an attack could become much more likely if Iraq believes that it is about to be attacked." That information, she said, came from material that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet had provided to the Senate.
Lee also raised questions in the floor debate that remain unanswered. "What is our objective here," she asked four years ago, "regime change or elimination of weapons of mass destruction?"
Looking forward now to next year and a Democratic majority in the House, Lee said, "Those of us who early on understood have many ideas of what to do now and how to get out of Iraq."
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), who did not belong to a committee with national security jurisdiction, was among the lawmakers who talked on the House floor about what turned out to be the real issues in Iraq. She spoke of the "postwar challenges," saying that "there is no history of democratic government in Iraq," that its "economy and infrastructure is in ruins after years of war and sanctions" and that rebuilding would take "a great deal of money."
Baldwin four years ago asked questions that are being widely considered today: "Are we prepared to keep 100,000 or more troops in Iraq to maintain stability there? If we don't, will a new regime emerge? If we don't, will Iran become the dominant power in the Middle East? . . . If we don't, will Islamic fundamentalists take over Iraq?"
Baldwin said recently that she put together her statement after reading public commentary and talking with like-minded colleagues and her staff about what would come next. "A vote like this, I didn't undertake lightly -- I almost fully expected they would find weapons there," she said. "But we hadn't heard about an exit strategy; it was such a blank."
The day after the House vote, The Washington Post recorded that 126 House Democrats voted against the final resolution. None was quoted giving a reason for his or her vote except for Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.), who said a military briefing had disclosed that U.S. soldiers did not have adequate protection against biological weapons.
"As a veteran, that's what hit me the hardest," he said.
Lee was described as giving a "fiery denunciation" of the administration's "rush to war," with only 14 colleagues in the House chamber to hear her. None of the reasons she gave to justify her concerns, nor those voiced by other Democratic opponents, was reported in the two Post stories about passage of the resolution that day.