It was hours before Sen. Hillary Clinton would vote in 2002 on whether to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war with Iraq. She had been advised by her husband and many close associates to vote yes. Now, at the last minute, she met with a group of church leaders, joining hands in silent prayer, insisting that she remained undecided.
“What I saw was her asking a lot of probing questions, a lot of concern about would this be effective,” said Andrew Shapiro, Clinton’s foreign policy adviser at the time, referring to the days leading up to her decision.
In the end, however, the New York Democrat crossed party lines and voted for the authorization to use military force. It would take her years to acknowledge that the decision was misguided, eventually calling it “my mistake.” But it was little surprise to many who watched her evolution as a hawk over her years as a first lady and then as a senator.
For years, Clinton has blamed Bush for misleading her into voting for the resolution. But an examination by The Washington Post found that her decision was based as much on advice from her husband’s advisers as from Bush administration officials. There were also significant gaps in her fact-gathering, most notably her apparent failure to read a classified analysis that other senators cited in voting against the resolution.
The path to Clinton’s decision was paved by her evolving sense of presidential power, forged during years in which she played a bigger role than widely realized in pushing her husband to intervene militarily in the Balkans, Iraq and Kosovo. She continued that path when she advocated intervention in Libya as secretary of state.
Clinton’s actions provide a window into how she might conduct herself as president, balancing countless calls for action to prevent global crises against risking the lives of American troops.
Fourteen years later, Clinton’s decision is a heated issue in her presidential campaign against Republican Donald Trump, who said at a Sept. 7 forum that her vote and other hawkish actions show that “she has a happy trigger.” Clinton responded that force is her last resort, even as she acknowledged that she regrets the Iraq decision. (Trump has repeatedly said he opposed the resolution, but fact-checkers have determined that he favored it at the time Clinton voted.)
Once branded dovish because of her antipathy to the Vietnam War, Clinton had watched from her front-row White House seat what happened when presidential power was left unused as masses died in Rwanda and initially in the Balkans.
As she saw the benefits of intervention, her views of executive power expanded. She argued that a president should have latitude to launch military missions because, as she starkly put it in justifying her 2002 vote, “sometimes a president has to do what he thinks is right no matter what anyone else says.” She embraced an approach to military force that in many cases argued for using it — rather than regretting not doing so.
Clinton declined requests to be interviewed for this article. Her campaign also would not say whether she read the classified report about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction or provide names of opponents with whom she consulted, other than citing the meeting with church members.
Instead, Jesse Lehrich, her foreign policy spokesman, noted in a statement that Clinton considered the Iraq vote “one of the hardest decisions of her life — one she anguished over exhaustively and, of course, one she came to regret in the end.”
A soft rain fell on April 22, 1993, as the first lady attended the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The Clintons had just settled into the White House, and their new national security team was already facing a humanitarian disaster in the Balkans, scene of one of the bloodiest European conflicts since World War II.
Guest speaker Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor, urged President Clinton to try to stop the mass killings that came to be known as ethnic cleansing. “We must do something to stop the bloodshed,” he said.
Hillary Clinton later said the speech was one of several by Wiesel that deeply influenced her thinking about the use of American force. She watched as her husband delayed action in the Balkans, and then, a year later, as he did not intervene in response to reports of a genocide in Rwanda that killed an estimated 800,000.
She was with her husband when Wiesel later admonished him for Rwanda, telling the president, “We could have prevented that massacre.”
In 1995, as the White House sought to recover from the domestic failure of Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan and a Republican takeover of Congress, the president faced new pressure to act in the Balkans after 8,000 people were killed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
Some of the president’s aides feared that he had an aversion to intervention, given the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters and the loss of 18 troops in Somalia in October 1993. They came to view the first lady as a conduit who would push her husband to take military force.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke — long an advocate of U.S. action in the Balkans — turned to the first lady for help persuading the president. “He warned her that Bosnia was ‘a cancer on the presidency,’ ” said Derek Chollet, a speechwriter for Holbrooke, who died in 2010.
Hillary Clinton later said she became convinced that “selective airstrikes are the only way to stop the genocide.” After the president authorized the strikes, she credited intervention for a peace accord, which she observed as an emissary to Bosnia.
In early 1998, Hillary Clinton faced the press corps in the White House’s Map Room. Reporters had been focused on allegations that her husband had had an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Hillary Clinton chose this moment, for the first time in such a public setting, to take on Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi leader was “without conscience,” having used weapons of mass destruction on “his own people,” she told reporters, referring to an attack on Kurds a decade earlier. “We are facing an extraordinary threat from this man. Something will have to be done.”
Iraq had been a festering issue for President Clinton. In the wake of reports that Hussein was behind an unsuccessful effort to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush, the president in July 1993 ordered the launch of 23 cruise missiles on Baghdad. Tensions escalated further when a U.N. report blamed economic sanctions for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, but U.S. officials shifted the blame to Hussein.
Amid reports that weapons inspectors were being blocked from key sites, a group of neoconservatives who would later play top roles in the George W. Bush administration pushed for regime change. Congress in October 1998 passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which called for Hussein’s removal. Hillary Clinton would repeatedly cite the legislation as part of the rationale for her Iraq War vote four years later.
After signing the legislation, President Clinton ordered bombers to Iraq in mid-November 1998. But he turned the planes around in midflight after Hussein suddenly promised cooperation.
On Dec. 15, 1998, the Clintons flew from Israel back to Washington to face a likely impeachment vote related to the Lewinsky scandal. National security adviser Sandy Berger and Bruce Riedel, one of his deputies, accompanied them.
While the president rested, Hillary Clinton conferred with his aides about rescheduling the attack on Iraq.
“The president was in his bedroom suite, sleeping, and Mrs. Clinton was sitting with Sandy Berger and myself,” Riedel, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, said in an interview. “She was listening quite avidly and taking it all in, and at one point or another we started saying, ‘What if we get another last-minute Saddam dodge?’ As I recall it, she said, ‘You can’t let him do that again; you need to pull the trigger.’ ”
Riedel often discussed foreign affairs with the first lady. “The most force-averse person in the Clinton administration was the president,” he said.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, “was among those who were encouraging the president not to let Saddam Hussein off the hook this time. . . . She was not in the chain of command, but she was among his most important advisers. A great deal of the memos Sandy sent to the president, she got a copy as well.”
Berger, who died in 2015, said in an oral history for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center that he, too, never doubted Hillary Clinton’s influence. “I often thought in the morning I heard some echoes of Hillary in something he said,” Berger said, referring to the president.
Operation Desert Fox was designed as a four-day attack on 100 sites, mostly aimed at Hussein’s power structure. Weapons inspectors heeded U.S. warnings to evacuate.
“I have no doubt today that, left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again,” President Clinton told the nation as the attack was launched, referring to suspected weapons of mass destruction.
After waiting for the bombing to end, the House impeached the president, but he survived because the Senate did not convict him, and Hussein survived as the bombing stopped.
A few months later, as Hillary Clinton prepared to run for the Senate, she and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, traveled to Africa. One night, in a phone call with her husband, the couple discussed a proposal to back bombing in Kosovo, which many Republicans opposed. President Clinton was hesitant, but his wife was certain.
“I urged him to bomb; I supported him,” Hillary Clinton told Talk magazine at the time. “You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?”
Shortly after returning from Africa, the first lady hosted Wiesel at a White House event, “The Perils of Indifference,” which focused on the lessons of the Holocaust. Clinton made clear that the lesson for her was to be more willing to use force. “Many of us in this room have personal experiences that are much more recent and fresh, about what it means to face that evil and that indifference today,” she said, citing her travel to trouble spots.
Clinton’s role in her husband’s foreign policy continued. In 2000, she attended a White House session with the president and his national security aides to discuss Hussein’s latest moves. Kenneth Pollack, the NSC director for Persian Gulf affairs at the time, said in an interview: “Clearly her husband felt he wanted her there. She would be there, she would give him advice, sometimes with us in the room. She asked really smart questions.”
Hillary Clinton hailed the intervention in Iraq as a success. But U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had tried to forestall bombing, later wrote that “Desert Fox ushered in a four-year period without inspections and without a dialogue with Iraq.”
As Hillary Clinton prepared to be sworn in as a senator in 2001, her husband’s administration handed over Iraq policy to President-elect George W. Bush. Bush and his aides suspected that Hussein had used the absence of inspections to escalate a weapons of mass destruction program, and they studied the possibility of an invasion.
The Bush administration’s planning on Iraq escalated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Hillary Clinton was at the U.S. Capitol when she learned about the mass casualties at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The senator soon urged Bush to provide $20 billion to rebuild New York. The president agreed, and a gratified Clinton said, “I’ll stand behind Bush for a long time to come.”
That pledge was tested a year later as the president urged Congress to grant him the authority to attack Iraq. Despite nearly universal support for intervening in Afghanistan, where Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was sheltered, the Iraq resolution encountered opposition from various leading Democrats, who said that Hussein had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks and that it would give Bush too much latitude.
As Hillary Clinton considered whether to support the resolution, her husband publicly endorsed regime change, as he had in 1998.
Many of Hillary Clinton’s advisers had been top officials in her husband’s administration. Pollack, her husband’s former aide, had just published a book, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” Clinton asked him to visit her.
After Pollack stressed Hussein’s dangers, Clinton asked him about the Iraqi leader’s intentions.
“I just remember being forced to say to her, ‘I’m sorry, senator, I wish I knew the answer to that. No one other than Saddam Hussein knows the answer,’ ” Pollack recalled.
Riedel, the former NSC aide who had often consulted with Clinton, said he believed at the time that war with Iraq was “insane.” He was convinced that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
But Riedel said he did not talk directly to Clinton, instead conveying his views to Berger, who was advising the senator and thought that Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
In her public comments, Clinton strongly suggested support for Bush.
“I agreed then with President Clinton,” Hillary Clinton said on Sept. 15 on “Meet the Press,” referring to her husband’s effort to oust Hussein. “I agree with President Bush’s emphasis on this issue.”
“I can’t imagine that we won’t” give Bush the authority, she said.
Bush called Clinton to the White House on Oct. 8, 2002, three days before the vote. His public arguments included a stream of later-discredited claims, including that Hussein had weapons “capable of killing millions.”
After Clinton left the White House, she took a call from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Clinton later cited this conversation as evidence that the Bush administration “misled” her. As she told it in a 2006 interview with the Atlantic, “Condi Rice called me and asked if I had any questions. I said, ‘Look, I have one question: If the president has this authority, will he go to the United Nations and use it to get inspectors to go back into Iraq and figure out what this guy has?’ ”
“Yes, that’s what it’s for,” Rice responded, according to Clinton.
Rice declined to comment, but her spokeswoman, Georgia Godfrey, said via email that Rice never would have suggested that “the Authorization would be limited to getting inspectors in.”
Clinton, like every other senator, was invited to read classified intelligence reports in a secure room on Capitol Hill.
The report had caveats — absent from an unclassified version — that led some senators to doubt the administration’s case. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who chaired the Intelligence Committee, pleaded with colleagues to read the document before voting.
Clinton has left the clear impression that she did not read the full report. She said in a 2008 interview on “Meet the Press” that she was briefed by its authors and that “not very many people read the whole thing.” When The Post asked a campaign spokesman to say definitively whether she read it, he pointed to Clinton’s 2008 statement.
Graham, who voted no, said in an interview that he remains frustrated that so many senators did not read the report. “I’m not sure if Senator Clinton read that or not; if she did, it apparently wasn’t sufficiently persuasive,” he said.
Some Clinton aides said they were uncertain until the end how she would vote. But her inclination to support Bush was so well known that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was trying to rally opposition, made no effort to change her mind, a former Kennedy aide said.
Clinton has cited as reasons for her support her gratitude for Bush’s financial support for New York, her expectation that the vote would reopen inspections and her underlying belief in strong presidential authority. She has also cited the advocacy of Clinton administration officials and the legacy of the Iraq Liberation Act. She has rejected suggestions that reading the full National Intelligence Estimate would have made a difference, noting that some who read it voted for the resolution.
On Oct. 10, 2002, Clinton’s Senate speech harked back to her husband’s 1998 attack on Iraq, even as she stressed her hope for a diplomatic solution.
“Left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons,” she said.
The Senate approved the measure 77 to 23, with Democrats favoring it 29 to 21. The two other opponents were an independent and a Republican. The House also voted in favor.
The drumbeat for war mounted. The Bush administration said Hussein still refused to allow adequate inspections, and an invasion threat had not resolved the issue. Bush launched the attack in March 2003, sending more than 100,000 U.S. troops to Iraq.
A year after the vote, Clinton defended it on CNN, citing “grave threats to the United States.”
But the basis of her decision was soon undermined. In October 2004, a U.N. team led by Charles Duelfer reported that weapons of mass destruction “stocks do not exist.”
Clinton contacted Pollack, a voice that had urged her to vote for war.
“So, Ken, what happened to the weapons of mass destruction?” she asked, as he recalled it.
“I’m as mystified as you are, Senator,” Pollack said he responded.
In 2008, as Clinton sought the Democratic presidential nomination for the first time, her pollster found that most voters would react negatively if she acknowledged that her vote was a mistake. She refrained from using the word, even as her primary rival, Barack Obama, attacked her vote.
She now characterizes her vote as a painful but valuable lesson.
“It is imperative that we learn from the mistakes,” she said earlier this month. “We must learn what led us down that path so that it never happens again. I think I’m in the best possible position to be able to understand that and prevent it.”
Magda Jean-Louis and Alice Crites contributed to this report.