Memory of Iraq war vote lingers over Congress' Syria decision

Burned by votes they took in 2002, lawmakers fear making the same mistake again and suffering the consequences

People demonstrate against US intervention in Syria in front of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Sue Kelly wishes she could go back to 2002 and re-take her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.

Eleven years ago, Kelly was a moderate Republican congresswoman from New York who, under pressure from the Bush administration, voted with 294 of her colleagues to authorize the war.

"I live every day with that vote," she told Al Jazeera.

Lawmakers were told then too that military engagement would be clean and quick, Kelly remembers, and that Iraqis would greet American troops with open arms. Her vote was later attacked by political opponents and her constituents — she lost her bid for re-election in 2007 after serving in Congress for 12 years.

She hopes the current crop of lawmakers is more skeptical of the administration's case and more aware of the consequences.

"Anybody who votes for it will have to pay the price of carrying the act. That is unnecessary blood on their hands," she said. "It's not any different — they're going to go in there and someone is going to die."

As the unpredictable debate over potential military strikes in Syria rages on Capitol Hill, it's clear that the wars of the last decade are weighing heavily on lawmakers' minds, particularly those who were in Congress when both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

Although administration officials have repeatedly said there will be no American boots on the ground and the circumstances are drastically different from Iraq in 2002, members of Congress are reticent to make the same mistakes again and suffer the political consequences.

"It may be irrelevant, but it's unforgettable. It's one of things that lingers on," said former Rep. Connie Morella, one of six Republicans in the House to vote against the resolution in 2002 because she didn't see enough international backing. "People think 'Gee, I made that mistake once, I don't want to make it again.'"

Unlike Kelly and Morella, 162 members of the House of Representatives who were there for the 2002 vote are still serving in Congress (some of them now in the Senate). Of those, 89 voted to authorize the war, and 73 voted against. In the Senate, 32 members from 2002 are still in the chamber, and 23 of them at the time voted for the resolution. It appears fewer of them will be on board with President Barack Obama's request.

Click for Al Jazeera's special coverage of the conflict in Syria

The vote next week looks to be an uphill battle for Obama, particularly in the GOP-controlled House. Of the members of the House who have made up their minds, the large majority — 206 — are definitively voting against the strikes or leaning no, according to a list compiled by The Washington Post, with only 24 representatives saying they will support military action. In the Senate, 25 are against military action or leaning no, while 23 have said they will vote against the strikes and the rest undecided. 

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who voted for the war in 2002, said he was weighing the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan in considering the strikes in Syria.

"If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, I would hope it would teach us the limitation of U.S. military force to fix problems," Smith said in an interview with a Seattle television station. "It's not that we don't care; it's not that we don't want to help. It's that getting in the middle of a civil war and stopping the violence, is an enormously difficult thing to do."

In a sign of how thoroughly the upcoming vote had scrambled the typical preferences and allegiances of lawmakers, Secretary of State John Kerry endured some of the most aggressive questioning this week from a former Senate colleague who remembers the trajectory of the Iraq war well.

"We've been here before," said Sen. Tom Udall, Democrat from New Mexico during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday. 

"The Iraq War began as an international effort to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait... and as we all know, this limited military action eventually led to what is one of the biggest blunders in U.S. foreign policy, a war that I voted against. After the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war, how can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited?"

Kerry, one of many Democrats who found themselves struggling to explain their own "yes" votes in subsequent campaigns, sympathized.

"Everyone understands that Iraq left a lot of folks reeling for some period of time," he answered.

Burned by bad intelligence reports a decade ago, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. — who voted against the war in 2002 — said lawmakers are understandably more cautious.

"Many of us who went through run up to war in Iraq had the same feeling that we have now. People are telling us with very good assurance they have best evidence possible and that there’s nothing to worry about," he told Al Jazeera. "And yet that's what [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell told us when he went to the United Nations, so we come away from it asking ourselves do we know everything? Do we know enough?"

Meanwhile, the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, led by a new generation of lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., are stronger than they were in 2002. Even GOP members who were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war are hesitant to engage again in the Middle East, especially with President Obama as commander-in-chief.  

"America cannot afford another conflict that taxes our resources without achieving goals that advance American interests, and I will not support authorizing military action against Syria at this time," Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said in a statement.

Rep. Jim Moran Jr., D-Va., has come to a different conclusion after studying the issue. He voted against the Iraq war in 2002, he said, when it became clear that the Bush administration's motivations were suspect, but he strongly supports the president's call for strikes this time. In part, it's because he trusts this administration more.

"President Obama is far more cautious about the use of the military, he would much prefer to rely upon diplomacy and I know John Kerry is anything but a war monger," Moran told Al Jazeera. "The people who made this decision are not those that do so casually."

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