The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s claim that he opposed the Iraq War the ‘moment it started’

Watch former vice president Joe Biden's (D) comments on his support for the Iraq War in 2003 and in 2019. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I did make a bad judgment, trusting the president saying he was only doing this to get inspectors in and get the U.N. to agree to put inspectors in. From the moment ‘shock and awe’ started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and the administration.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden, in remarks during the second Democratic presidential primary debate, July 31

President George W. Bush “got them in, and before we know it, we had a ‘shock and awe.’ Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.”

— Biden, in an interview with National Public Radio, aired Sept. 3

More than 16 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, former vice president Joe Biden continues to struggle with explaining his 2002 Senate vote that gave President George W. Bush the authority to launch the war. He has suggested that he was misled by Bush, believing the war authorization vote was simply a means to strengthen diplomacy.

In recent weeks, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination has stated that, despite that vote, he opposed the Iraq War from the “moment it started.” But a review of Biden’s statements from the 2002-2003 period finds that although he was certainly a critic, sometimes a farsighted one, of Bush’s handling of the war effort, he did not forthrightly oppose the conflict once it started.

After our inquiries on these statements, Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state who is a senior campaign adviser, told The Fact Checker that Biden misspoke. Blinken was staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Biden during the period in question.

(Note: The writer of this fact check covered the diplomacy for The Washington Post before and after the invasion.)

The Facts

As the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden had a key role in the debate surrounding a possible war with Iraq.

The Bush administration repeatedly warned that Iraq possessed and sought weapons of mass destruction, including possible nuclear capability, in defiance of numerous United Nations resolutions. Biden agreed that intelligence showed this was the case — although it later turned out to be hyped and incorrect — but he repeatedly emphasized that an international diplomatic effort was necessary to ensure the return of weapons inspectors. He stressed the need to work with allies and exhaust diplomatic options before turning to a possible war.

Bush decided to seek a U.N. resolution that would return the inspectors, but he asked for congressional authority to go to war, supposedly to strengthen his hand in the negotiations. The president sought a congressional resolution that gave him maximum flexibility, permitting a war over any U.N. resolution involving Iraq, not just resolutions concerning Iraq’s efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Biden, working with Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), sought to limit military action to removing illicit weapons from Iraq. But their efforts were thwarted by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who was considering a run for the presidency and cut his own deal with Bush. After Gephardt’s defection, it was all but impossible to round up Republican support for a more narrow resolution.

In the end, the core of the resolution text read:

The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to--
(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.

Biden, during the Senate debate on Oct. 10, 2002, argued that the resolution was designed to ensure diplomacy. But he also fought against alternatives offered by more liberal Democrats that would have required Bush to first win U.N. authority for an invasion, or else seek a new war resolution from Congress.

“The reason for my saying not two steps now is it strengthens his hand, in my view, to say to all the members of the Security Council: ‘I just want you to know, if you do not give me something strong, I am already authorized, if you fail to do that, to use force against this fellow,’ ” Biden argued on the Senate floor.

Biden insisted: “I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security.” He said he did not think Iraq’s weapons programs posed “an imminent threat” but an “inevitable threat.” Yet he also warned that if a war came, “there is a danger” in assuming it would be “a cakewalk.”

The U.N. ordered weapons inspectors back into Iraq but the administration got impatient with the results, calling for the inspections to end almost as soon as they started. Irritating allies, the administration argued that the inspections could not be allowed to drag on because the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region had proceeded too far to turn back from war.

Nevertheless, Biden continued to express support for his vote. “I supported the resolution to go to war. I am not opposed to war to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq,” he said in a February 2003 speech. “I am not opposed to war to remove Saddam [Hussein] from those weapons if it comes to that.” But he added that Bush was not being straight with the American people about the possible financial and military burden.

Five months after the congressional vote, when the war started, Biden said he was disappointed that Bush decided to go to war without U.N. authorization or much international backing. Only four other countries — Australia, Denmark, Poland and the United Kingdom — contributed troops.

“Back in August, wittingly or unwittingly, the president accepted two totally incompatible strategies,” Biden told The Washington Post on the eve of the invasion. On March 10, in a Post opinion article, he unsuccessfully argued that an invasion should be delayed until the administration obtained a U.N. resolution authorizing an attack. That was the position taken by Senate liberals that Biden had previously dismissed during the debate about the war resolution.

But once the invasion started on March 20, Biden expressed support for military action, couching it as support for the troops. “If we go to war in Iraq, we must all unite behind our men and women in uniform,” he said in a statement that warned an international effort would be needed to rebuild Iraq.

After that, Biden repeatedly expressed support for the war and its goals, while disagreeing with the administration’s tactics, especially its plans to rebuild Iraq. In a March 27 floor statement calling for a massive reconstruction effort, Biden said to allies that had declined to participate: “This Senator and many others may disagree — profoundly — with the choice they have made.” But he added, “We could not come together in war, but we are going to have to come together in peace.”

The pattern continued:

  • April 7, ABC’s “This Week”: Biden warned of “a prescription for disaster” if the administration permitted Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, a favorite of Vice President Richard B. Cheney, a prominent role in the emerging Iraqi government. “What we don’t want to do is we don’t want to become, go from being liberators to occupiers being the only game in town,” he said.
  • May 22, Senate hearing: Biden challenged Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to be honest about the cost and length of occupation: “When is the president going to tell the American people that we’re likely to be in the country of Iraq for three, four, five, six, eight, 10 years, with thousands of forces and spending billions of dollars? Because it’s not been told to them yet. I don’t know about you, but home constituency doesn’t understand that. They think Johnny and Jane are going to come marching home pretty soon.”
  • June 19, interview on CNN: “I, for one, thought we should have gone in Iraq. I also said at the time, as far back as August, that I thought the administration was exaggerating the threat of weapons of mass destruction.”
  • June 29, interview on “Fox News Sunday”: Question after Biden says the intelligence was exaggerated: “So you think, looking back on it, still, that it was a just war, in your opinion?” Biden responded: “Oh, I do think it was a just war.”
  • July 10, remarks to reporters: Biden pushed through a Senate resolution, passed unanimously, calling on the administration to invite NATO and U.N. troops into Iraq to share the burden of peacekeeping and reconstruction. The White House policy in Iraq is “just dead flat wrong,” Biden told reporters. “We need more forces ... and we have to make it clear that we’re not a force of occupation.”
  • July 20, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: Question: “Do you question your own vote to go to war against Saddam Hussein?” Biden: “No. ... The problem with hyping the intelligence was they hyped it, in my view, to create a sense of urgency and a threat. We moved faster than we should have, we went without additional forces.”
  • July 31, speech at the Brookings Institution: “Nine months ago, I voted with my colleagues to give the president of the United States of America the authority to use force, and I would vote that way again today. It was the right vote then and it would be a correct vote today. ... Contrary to what some in my party might think, Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with sooner, rather than later. So I commend the president. He was right to enforce the solemn commitments made by Saddam. ... [But] we went to war too soon. We went to war with too few troops. We went to war without the world, when we could have had many with us, and we’re paying the price for it now."
  • June 28, 2004, opinion article in the New Republic: “A year and a half ago, I voted to give President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq. I still believe my vote was just — but the president’s use of that authority was unwise in ways I never imagined.”

Not until November 2005 did Biden acknowledge that his vote was a mistake. “It was a mistake,” he told “Meet the Press.” “It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly.” He repeated his previous criticism of Bush’s tactics: “We went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan.”

When Bush in 2006 proposed a “surge” of troops in Iraq, Biden was a prominent dissenter to the strategy. And in 2008, Biden told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that Barack Obama, his running mate, had been right to oppose the war. “He not only got it right about being against the war, I got it wrong about underestimating the incompetence of this administration when we gave the president the power we gave him at the time,” Biden said.

We received a long statement from Blinken via the Biden campaign:

“Vice President Biden misspoke by saying that he declared his opposition to the war immediately. He opposed the way we went to war and the way the war was being carried out. He has for many years called his vote a mistake and takes full responsibility for it. The Bush Administration assured then-Senator Biden that the purpose of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force was to strengthen our position at the U.N. Security Council to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and that diplomacy would be exhausted without a premature rush to war. The U.N. element of this strategy worked: after Congress passed the AUMF, the Security Council voted 15-0 to send the inspectors back and Saddam gave them access. However, the Bush Administration plunged the nation into war anyway, without allowing the inspectors to finish their job — which was profoundly misguided. Once the war began, then-Senator Biden was immediately clear in his opposition to how we got into the conflict and the way it was being conducted — including the failure to exhaust diplomacy or enlist allies, the reliance on and hyping of faulty intelligence, and the absence of a viable plan to win the peace. He was adamant that, however misguided the war, we owed it to our troops to support them, and he fought for investments like MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] that saved hundreds of lives from IEDs.”

The Pinocchio Test

A case could be made that Biden tried to slow down the rush for war and farsightedly highlighted problems with the administration’s diplomacy and execution of the conflict. But he went too far to portray himself as a war opponent “from the moment it started.”

Yes, Biden was critical of how the war was managed and the reasons it was waged, and thus he would be on more solid ground if he simply called himself a war critic. Yet for more than a year he repeatedly defended his vote to authorize an invasion as “just” and “right.” Even when he finally said in 2005 that the vote was a mistake, he again faulted Bush for how he waged the war, not the decision to start it in the first place. Not until 2008, when he was Obama’s running mate, did he forthrightly say the war should not have been fought.

Regular readers know that we withhold Pinocchios when a politician admits error. Biden was on his way to Four Pinocchios until his staff acknowledged that he misspoke. So we will leave this unrated and let readers make their own decision.

Update: Biden told New Hampshire voters that he made a “misrepresentation” when he said he opposed the war immediately. “The extent to which I misspoke was, my public statements were that we were doing this all the wrong way,” he said, according to a report by WMUR.

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles