Bernie Sanders really, really, wants you to know that he voted against the 2003 Iraq War and Hillary Clinton voted for it. He’s mentioned in it every single debate. His ridiculously named website, feelthebern.org, has a whole page dedicated to it (see below).
The funny thing about that feelthebern page is how carefully it jumps from his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War. The US had Iraq policy in the 1990s. What were Bernie’s positions during those 12 years? He’d rather you not think about that. And you probably won’t, especially if you’re among the people he consistently does best with – voters 29 and under.
The thing about voters under 29 is that the first Presidential election they could vote in was 2008. The oldest members of that cohort were 15 or 16 when Hillary Clinton made that vote. For them, Iraq is synonymous with a humanitarian and foreign policy disaster that began in the Bush years and continues to this day. Senator Sanders knows this. And he knows that, outside of Vermont, voters didn’t really know who he was until last year. This lets him tell a fascinating story about a reliably left-wing anti-interventionist peacenik politician who foresaw disaster back in 2002. Telling that particular story, though, relies on a clever mix of 20/20 hindsight and the short memories of his core constituency.
Let’s tell another story – about diarrhea. For adults, it can be a messy inconvenience. Over a prolonged period, it is fatal for children as their bodies dehydrate and lose nutrients. Between the two Iraq wars that Bernie Sanders so bravely opposed, lots of Iraqi children died of malnutrition and dehydration. Lots. A conservative estimate put the number of dead children at 106,000 between 1991 and 1998. A 1995 study in The Lancet estimated it at 576,000. Iraq was prevented from importing water purification and sanitation equipment under the sanctions imposed by the UN and enforced by the US and its allies. Bernie Sanders supported those sanctions.
Sanctions starved Iraq of resources and supplies, and Saddam Hussein allocated what was left to reinforce his regime. Sanctions precipitated a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions. The bills that shaped US sanctions policy, the bills Sanders supported, all came up during that decade gap his site skips right over. It’s an uglier story. Tell that story, and the man campaigning as champion of the underdog looks a lot more like any other establishment politician supporting the status quo, no matter the cost.
And there was a cost to sanctions – and not just the Iraqi lives lost at the time. In May, 2000 The Lancet ran an editorial alongside a study showing that child mortality in much of Iraq was getting worse. The editorial concluded that UN sanctions bore significant responsibility for this tragedy and that “(t)he courageous policy…is to suspend (not abandon) sanctions lest upcoming generations of Iraqis, out of resentment, suffering, and isolation, grow up to be as aggressive as their current leader.” A quick bit of arithmetic should tell you when the many young Iraqis recruited by ISIS were born.
Back when Hillary Clinton was still defending her Iraq War vote she said she acted “in the context of weapons of mass destruction, grave threats to the United States, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade.” This is the same context in which then-Representative Sanders supported every single bill supporting Iraq sanctions and regime change that came his way. Because he, like every other member of the political establishment, was far more concerned about Saddam’s WMD than he was about the Iraqi people. Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush – believed that Saddam was trying to restart WMD programs. He wasn’t.
Bernie didn’t have to be a reliable vote in favor of humanitarian disaster. Twelve of his colleagues voted against House Joint Resolution 75, which stated that Iraq was “a mounting threat to the United States” in 2001. Bernie supported the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which stated “that it should be the policy of the United States to ‘support efforts’ to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” This bill threw buckets of money at the Iraqi National Congress, a corrupt opposition movement which fed lousy intelligence to the US right up to the 2003 invasion. Thirty-eight of Bernie’s colleagues voted against the bill, and it was publicly opposed by the State Department and Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the Middle East. Had he voted against it, Bernie would’ve had good company.
It’s fair to say that on WMD, Representative Sanders had no way of independently knowing that Saddam had abandoned his weapons programs. That’s not the case for the sanctions. By the mid-1990s, serious people were arguing that sanctions were crushing Iraqi society, having dire effects on child mortality, and enriching Saddam’s inner circle. Quaker groups, pacifists and human rights activists mobilized against sanctions. These are Bernie’s people. Presidential candidate Sanders doesn’t like to talk about foreign policy. But as a mayor, Bernie used his position to work as a lefty foreign policy activist on disarmament, Nicaragua, and issues. Did he not read a paper or meet with activists for a decade?
Given his history, and his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, you might find his votes odd. But that’s only if you believe the story of an outsider. A guy who speaks truth to power and rejects the conventional wisdom. That guy might have taken a stand against sanctions. But not the go-along to get-along guy that Bernie actually is. That’s the story of a politician who is a reliable vote for military interventions: in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. The story of a politician who made a deal with Democrats so that they wouldn’t run someone against him in his Senate campaign.
In the debate in Milwaukee Wednesday night, Bernie went after Hillary on regime change on Iraq: “I think an area in kind of a vague way…where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change.” Bernie voted for regime change in Iraq in the 1998 law. If you read the 2002 authorization for war in Iraq, the fourth paragraph cites that that law. The one Bernie voted for, along with all the other bills he supported in the 1990s that explicitly had as their goal regime change in Iraq.
And it’s not just that. Go read House Concurrent Resolution 104 from April 2003. The one in which “the Congress expresses the unequivocal support and appreciation of the Nation– (1) to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq.” Bernie voted in favor of that, too. Eleven of his colleagues didn’t.
So why would Bernie bash Hillary over a policy he supported before, and he implicitly supported following (he also voted in favor of defense spending bills to support the war)? Of course, it helps that he ended up being right. It’s also one of the few instances where his vote wasn’t indistinguishable from Senator Clinton’s. But it’s also because his vote on the Iraq War is one of the few times where he wasn’t just another status-quo, by-the-book, conventionally thinking, go-along-to-get along, veteran politician with all of the accumulated baggage of his years in office. And that’s a story he’d very much like you to hear.