Forgotten History

A century ago, the Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously opined that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” At present, this nation has been condemned by its so-called leaders to repeat the tragically forgotten (or disregarded or misinterpreted) lessons of the Vietnam War. Like its forebear, the war in Iraq was neither wise nor necessary. It has, however, been catastrophic and costly. The majority of Americans have come around to this point of view, though the President and his supporters stubbornly stick to their guns. Ever sensitive to the political winds, the majority of those in Congress are at long last challenging the dangerous intransigence and ineptitude of the executive branch. But where were they 4-5 years ago when Mr. Bush was rattling sabers and banging the drums of war? A prescient few were courageously speaking out. Some were even offering compromise solutions as an alternative to simply handing the President a blank check to invade Iraq. Sadly, this too is largely forgotten. As a result, with the 2008 presidential election already heating up, those who cannot remember the past may perhaps be condemned to unwisely cast a ballot for an unwise candidate. Fortunately, former Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island is making an effort to remind the public about recent history, with an op-ed in today’s New York Times:

The Senate’s Forgotten Iraq Choice

AS the presidential primary campaigns begin in earnest, the Iraq war is overshadowing all other issues, as it did during the midterm elections. Presidential candidates who were in the Senate in October 2002 are particularly under the microscope, as they are being called upon to justify their votes for going to war.

As someone who was in the Senate at the time, I have been struck by the contours of the debate. The situation facing the candidates who cast war votes has, to my surprise, often been presented as a binary one — they could either vote for the war, or not. There was no middle ground.

On the contrary. There was indeed a third way, which Senator James Jeffords, independent of Vermont, hailed at the time as “one of the most important votes we will cast in this process.� And it was opposed by every single senator at the time who now seeks higher office.

A mere 10 hours before the roll was called on the administration-backed Iraq war resolution, the Senate had an opportunity to prevent the current catastrophe in Iraq and to salvage the United States’ international standing. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, offered a substitute to the war resolution, the Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act of 2002.

Senator Levin’s amendment called for United Nations approval before force could be authorized. It was unambiguous and compatible with international law. Acutely cognizant of the dangers of the time, and the reality that diplomatic options could at some point be exhausted, Senator Levin wrote an amendment that was nimble: it affirmed that Congress would stand at the ready to reconsider the use of force if, in the judgment of the president, a United Nations resolution was not “promptly adopted� or enforced. Ceding no rights or sovereignty to an international body, the amendment explicitly avowed America’s right to defend itself if threatened.

An opponent of the Levin amendment said that the debate was not over objectives, but tactics. And he was right. To a senator, we all had as our objectives the safety of American citizens, the security of our country and the disarming of Saddam Hussein in compliance with United Nations resolutions. But there was a steadfast core of us who believed that the tactics should be diplomacy and multilateralism, not the “go it alone� approach of the Bush doctrine.

Those of us who supported the Levin amendment argued against a rush to war. We asserted that the Iraqi regime, though undeniably heinous, did not constitute an imminent threat to United States security, and that our campaign to renew weapons inspections in Iraq — whether by force or diplomacy — would succeed only if we enlisted a broad coalition that included Arab states.

We also urged our colleagues to take seriously the admonitions of our allies in the region — Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. As King Abdullah of Jordan warned, “A miscalculation in Iraq would throw the whole area into turmoil.�

Unfortunately, these arguments fell on deaf ears in that emotionally charged, hawkish, post-9/11 moment, less than four weeks before a midterm election. The Levin amendment was defeated by a 75 to 24 vote. Later that night, the Iraq War Resolution was approved, 77 to 23. It was clear that most senators were immune to persuasion because the two votes were almost mirror images of each other — no to the Levin amendment, aye to war. Their minds were made up. [full text]

2 thoughts on “Forgotten History

  1. What if Iraq was the United States in 1964? February 1, 1964, at the height of segregation in the United States, the British send a military force taking control of the south of the United States deploying forces across Alabama, Tennessee Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. Find out more.

  2. Great post. Unfortunately, popular history does tend to forget the nuances of debate. Let’s not forget, though, that the final resolution did encourage the President to continue to seek diplomatic solutions while also authorizing him to use the Armed Forces. What the President did with this authorization, then, was ultimately his decision.

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