Politicians Regret, Reflect On Iraq War Vote

Dec 16, 2011
Originally published on December 16, 2011 11:19 am
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, his athletic accomplishments on the football field brought him through college and into the NFL. Now it seems like quarterback Tim Tebow gets as much attention for his strong Christian faith as he does for winning football games, and that has some people wondering if the two, his faith and winning ways, are related. We will speak with an initially skeptical sports fan who's thought a lot about this question in a few minutes. But first we want to start the program today by reflecting on the end of a conflict that has embroiled this country and the nation of Iraq for nearly nine years.

The U.S. officially ended its military campaign in Iraq with a flag casing ceremony that took place yesterday in Baghdad, and in the coming days the last remaining U.S. troops in Iraq are expected to pack their bags and head home. Earlier this week, President Obama traveled to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to mark the end of the war and to thank the troops for their service.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree: welcome home. Welcome home.


MARTIN: The war has claimed the lives of nearly 4,500 Americans and the death toll among Iraqis is many times that. The human cost coupled with questions over why the war started in the first place has left people wondering how history will judge the conflict in Iraq. To talk more about this, we decided to call upon two former colleagues, both Democrats, both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were on opposite sides of the decision to go in the first place. Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents a district that includes Oakland, California in the U.S. House of Representatives.

She voted against the Iraq war and was also the sole member of Congress to vote against authorizing the use of force to combat terrorism following the attacks of September 11th. Also joining us is Albert Wynn. He is a former member of Congress representing Maryland. He was just one of four members of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution in 2002. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.


ALBERT WYNN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, obviously we don't want to rehash all the details from nine years ago, but I do think it would help if we just looked back for a moment to ask about just what was the atmosphere at the time in which you were making the decision. I was particularly interested in whether each of you in your own way thought it was an easy decision at the time. Was it a clear decision at the time or was it one with which you wrestled? And Congressman Wynn, why don't you start?

WYNN: Well, it was a very difficult decision on my part. I think the administration clearly manipulated the intelligence; either that or our intelligence community did not provide us with accurate information, leading us to believe that there might be a real threat of weapons of mass destruction. Representing the suburbs of Washington, D.C. at the time, which would have been a prime target if there had been weapons of mass destruction, I was in a very difficult situation.

I, Congressman Hoyer, John Kerry, current Secretary Clinton, all of us came to the same conclusion, based on the presentations we received, that there was a legitimate threat. That was a mistake and certainly as soon as we saw that there were no weapons of mass destruction, we should have gotten out.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Lee, what about you? Do you remember - and you remember, you had already taken a very hard vote. You were the sole vote right after the September 11th attacks against authorizing the president to act unilaterally using military force. So that was already a tough vote that you had taken. Did it seem clear to you at the time or do you remember wrestling with it?

LEE: I never believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because of the briefings and the hearings and all of the information that we had. It just didn't make any sense. And so what I did - and I was on the Foreign Affairs Committee at that point - I offered a resolution. I said, okay, if you really believe that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then why don't we give the U.N. time to complete their investigations. And unfortunately there were only 72 votes for that amendment and so, quite frankly, I knew then that this was really going to be the beginning of the waging of war against a country that for many, many reasons should never have been part of this entire doctrine of preemptive war which the Bush administration had totally embraced.

MARTIN: So, how do you feel now? How does each of you feel now that the war is officially over? And Congresswoman Lee, why don't you start? How do you feel now?

LEE: Well, first, let me just say, I'm the daughter of a 25-year veteran, so I don't take going to war lightly and I just have to say our troops have done everything we've asked them to do. They have performed in a way that no other force in the world could perform, and so I'm very, very happy. I'm excited that they're coming home, and believe you me, we've got to do so much to ensure their economic security and to ensure that they don't become homeless veterans and to ensure that their families are taken care of, because they've paid a big price and they've done their job. They've done it well, and I just have to say welcome home, as the daughter of a veteran.

MARTIN: Mr. Wynn, how about you? What are your thoughts now that this is over?

WYNN: Well, I agree very much with the last comment she made about how we treat veterans who have made the sacrifices that they have made. I think we also should learn a lot of lessons. We had an opportunity to withdraw after it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction. We didn't do that. I think we need to ask serious questions about how we engage militarily, when we engage militarily, and on what basis we engage militarily. What kind of intelligence do we have to justify a military engagement?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're reflecting on the official end of the war in Iraq with former Congressman Albert Wynn and current Congresswoman Barbara Lee. They were on opposite sides of the question of whether to go into Iraq to begin with. Mr. Wynn, do you think that any good came of the Iraq conflict? I understand that Congresswoman Lee, you were against it from the beginning. Congressman Wynn, you came to believe that your vote was a mistake?

WYNN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was a mistake. So do you think anything good came of it?

WYNN: Obviously, the emergence of democracy in Iraq is a good thing and I'm certainly pleased about that, but here's the point. We probably could have gotten to that as the Arab Spring has shown without the engagement of the United States in the way we did. So while I applaud the democracy in Iraq, I think the cost certainly outweighed the benefit which could have occurred eventually anyway, and a different approach to promote democracy abroad certainly would make more sense.

MARTIN: Hmm. Congresswoman Lee what about you? Do you think that any good came of it despite your misgivings?

LEE: Well, I tell you, I agree with Al. I think that the Arab Spring and what has taken place in the Middle East really is an example of what people will do when they know that they want democracy. The United States has got to stop playing policeman and -woman of the world, and you know, our troops, again, they have performed with skill and bravery and they've done everything we've asked them to do. What for me is the best thing out of this is that they're home, and so to me, you know, losing 4,500 men and women, 32,000 wounded, countless Iraqi civilians and refugees, a country that was in shambles - and so when you look at it in total, you know, we have spent quite a bit of money, quite a bit of blood and treasure in Iraq, and I think history will show if that was - if the outcome made sense.

MARTIN: Well, you - but you use the term police officers of the world or policemen of the world. Those were not the terms that were used at the time to argue in favor of going into Iraq. The argument at the time was that this was a necessary step to ensure the safety and security of the United States.

LEE: Well, you know, people using fear as a tactic always works and, you know, if the truth had been told, you know, if there were other reasons that they wanted to go into Iraq, then they should have said that. They should not have deceived the American people.

MARTIN: Do you think it was deliberate? I mean, obviously a number of administration officials have written books about this that have been published in recent months. None of them says that they deliberately misled the American people...

LEE: Well...

MARTIN: ...they say they may have made a mistake or, you know - but I'm just - do you really believe that was deliberate?

LEE: When you look at the doctrine of preemptive war, you know, let's start a war to preempt what we think may happen in the future, then you have to really wonder what the plans were for every part of the world that they wanted to invade or go into. So who knows whether they intentionally lied? But, in fact, we do know that the outcome was that they did not tell the truth.

MARTIN: We're down to our last couple of minutes. I want to give you each a closing thought so, Albert, I gave you the first word. I'm going to give Congressman Lee the last word. You started off by telling us the question that I was going to end on so I just want to ask you if you want to expand further. And it's really the question going forward, is are there lessons that our leaders, or that we as citizens, should learn from this?

WYNN: There are lots of lessons. One, we have to have full intelligence and it has to be thoroughly scrubbed before we make these decisions. One comment I want to make: People don't realize part of the reason we're out is because the Iraqis wanted us out. Because the plan was to leave three to five thousand U.S. troops in Iraq. The Iraqis said, no, we want you all out and we will not give you any kind of military immunity.

So there's still some in the Defense Department that believe we ought to be there. This is...

MARTIN: Well, there's some dispute about that too. I mean, you know, Senator John McCain argues that the administration never - this administration, the Obama administration, never seriously consider leaving a residual force there and he disagrees with that. So...

WYNN: Well, good for...

MARTIN: ...there's a difference of opinion about that.

WYNN: ...good for the Obama administration on that score, but there was clearly a signal from the Iraqis they wanted us all out. The lesson is there's a lot that we don't know about sectarian disagreements. For example, we didn't know what the Shiites wanted, what the Sunnis wanted, and the implications of that in terms of our involvement. We were just talking about democracy.

Well, they're talking about sectarian divisions that they needed to resolve. So we need to know more about what's going on in the world. We can operate effective foreign policy through other means as exemplified by Libya. We need to be very cautious and reluctant to approach foreign policy through the use of mass armies.

MARTIN: And Congresswoman Lee, your final thought? What do you think that we as - you as a political leader or we as citizens should have learned from this experience over nine years?

LEE: Well, we should have learned that our foreign and military policy should be about global peace and security, smart security, rather than using the military option that quickly. And we need to be more prudent in terms of how we make these decisions. But also I have to just say it's a process of - the withdrawal process, I'm very proud of the fact that we were able to build bipartisan coalitions here in Congress.

And so I think we have built a strong peace coalition in this Congress to really begin to look at new missions, new strategies, and new ways that should put us on the pathway to peace rather than using war as an option.

MARTIN: Barbara Lee is a member of the United States Congress. She is a Democrat. Her district includes Oakland, California. She was kind enough to join us from the studios at the House of Representatives. Albert Wynn is a former member of Congress representing Maryland. He is currently a partner at Dickstein Shapiro, LLT. And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LEE: Thank you.

WYNN: Thank you, Michel. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.