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political cost of getting the Iraq war wrong fifteen years

Where Are They Now?

15 years later, what was the political cost of getting the Iraq war wrong?

Words: Stephen Miles and Erica Fein
Pictures: Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps no one’s political fortunes are more famously tied to the Iraq War than Hillary Clinton’s. The presumptive Democratic nominee in 2008 and presumptive victor in 2016 saw her political fortunes upended by Iraq War opponents, first by then-Senator Barack Obama and later by her 2016 challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders. In 2016, Trump disingenuously took advantage of the space Bernie created by falsely claiming he too had opposed the invasion. The rest is history.

As we mark the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War’s start, history’s judgment on the war is little in doubt. By starting this war, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney cost our nation trillions of dollars, created massive instability in the Middle East, and caused a human toll – to both Americans and Iraqis – that may never be fully known.

Few disagree that Hillary Clinton’s support for the Iraq War was a political liability. But what about the other 528 members of Congress who took that fateful vote a decade and a half ago?**

Before the bombs fell, Congress had to vote to authorize the Iraq War, a vote they took in the fall of 2002. It’s worth taking a moment to remember the political context Members of Congress found themselves in that autumn. A year after 9/11, George W. Bush enjoyed approval ratings between 60 percent and 70 percent, and a majority of Americans told pollsters they supported going to war once again in the deserts of Iraq.

At the time, despite the fledgling anti-war movement, most pundits did not see opposing the invasion of Iraq as politically advantageous. Indeed, the Bush Administration expressly timed the vote for just before the 2002 midterm elections with the hopes of taking advantage of Democrats’ fear of being seen as insufficiently tough enough on national security.

The same thinking would lead the party in 2004 to reject Howard Dean’s anti-war fueled campaign in favor of decorated Vietnam veteran, John Kerry, who had voted in favor of the Iraq War. The public, so the thinking went, would not support a candidate that opposed the Iraq war, particularly in the middle of the war.

Fifteen years later, we can now say that the conventional wisdom was wrong. Members of Congress who voted against the war are more likely to still be in Congress today, while those who voted for the war are more likely to have lost re-election.

Members of Congress who voted against the war are more likely to still be in Congress today, while those who voted for the war are more likely to have lost re-election.

It’s worth taking a quick dive into the numbers. Of the members of Congress who voted against the Iraq war, a full 37.8 percent remain in Congress today, while only 20.6 percent of their war-supporting colleagues remain. Likewise, when you examine how these members left office, Iraq war proponents fared worse, with 21.7 percent having been booted out by their constituents compared to only 14.7 percent of Iraq war opponents.

Of course, not all of these elections turned on the Iraq War. Members of Congress leave office for all sorts of reasons (including 15 who died in office), but again, history is clear: supporting the war was no more likely to cost you your seat in Congress than save it. Of the 16 Iraq War supporters who eventually lost re-election, a quarter lost in the 2006 Democratic wave, largely fueled by strong anti-Iraq War sentiment. Perhaps most tellingly of all, of the six Democratic Senators in 2002 who eventually lost re-election (seven if you count Arlen Specter) all but Sen. Russ Feingold, were Iraq War supporters. (Feingold remained in office until 2010 when he was swept out by the Tea Party wave.)

Fifteen years ago, as the first bombs fell on Baghdad, the conventional wisdom was that political opposition to a popular war would later prove to be the undoing of many of the 156 members of Congress who had tried to stop the war. Yet today, a sober analysis shows otherwise. As our elected officials in Congress once again decide how to deal with a President seemingly intent on pushing our country towards war — whether with Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere — they may want to pause and reflect on the political lessons of the Iraq War: voters remember those with political courage, not those who hide behind the mantle of toughness. If our lawmakers want to be rewarded by the voters of tomorrow, the time to do the right thing is today, before the first bombs fall.

Stephen Miles is director and Erica Fein is the advocacy director of Win Without War, a national coalition fighting for a more progressive foreign policy. The organization was formed in the dark days leading up to the Iraq War.

**At the time of the 2002 vote, there were 3 vacancies in the House of Representative and an additional 3 Representatives did not vote, leaving 529 votes cast out of the possible 535.

Stephen Miles and Erica Fein

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