Voting For The Blank Check Not Once, But Twice
In evaluating candidates for president, a major factor should be an assessment of that candidate’s judgment, especially in the heat of heightened partisanship. Former GOP senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island reminds us in a NYT Op-Ed today that in the heated days leading up to the Iraq Authorization to Use Military Force vote before the 2002 midterm elections, senators had an alternative resolution to support if they had the guts to stand up to the White House just before the midterms. As Chafee reminds us, the choice was not simply between military force and no military force; Democratic Senator Carl Levin had offered up an alternate Use of Force resolution that complied with international law that would have made Bush’s charge to war harder, while still giving the commander in chief the means to do so if he could demonstrate the need.
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.
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.
But Chafee reminds us that these arguments fell on deaf ears.
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.
It was incomprehensible to me at the time that the Levin amendment received only 24 votes. However, there were some heroes, like Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, who even in the midst of a very difficult re-election campaign voted to slow the march to war. And then there was the moving statement by Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, in support of the Levin amendment and against the administration-backed resolution: “This is an unprecedented and unfounded interpretation of the president’s authority under the Constitution of the United States — not to mention the fact that it stands the charter of the United Nations on its head.”
And who were the Democratic senators and 2008 candidates who voted against the Levin amendment and for the war amendment?
By the way, Harry Reid, Jay Rockefeller, and Chuck Schumer ditched Levin on this vote and went with the White House as well.
These Democratic senators had one more chance to cast a vote for a resolution that specifically tied the use of force to an imminent WMD threat from Iraq, rather than simply a more nebulous threat posed by Iraq. And the following senators still voted against this, and for the blank check:
Again, Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller voted against this focused resolution and in favor of the blank check.
Of course, since then, Edwards has apologized for his vote, as has Biden, even though we now see they both had two chances to vote for a better alternative and voted against them both times. Hillary’s position is that she trusted the White House and shouldn’t have, but wanted to preserve the executive’s ability to use all the tools at his disposal to resolve the problem. Yet now we see that she also had two chances to vote for better alternatives and instead voted for the blank check twice.