If senators could rewrite history, the war wouldn't have happened

John McCain tries anyway.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 5, 2007 5:15PM (EST)

In October 2002, U.S. senators voted 77-23 to authorize the use of force in Iraq. How would those same 100 men and women have voted then if they knew what they know now? ABC News engages in the hypothetical today and finds that 57 of the senators who voted on the authorization for use of force in 2002 say they would vote against it if given a second chance.

Translation: If the senators knew what they know now -- and if they're being honest about what they would have done then -- the resolution would have gone down by a vote of at least 57-43.

It's all very nice, this hindsight thing. It's great that Republican senators like Gordon Smith, Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democrats like John Kerry and Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton have the courage to say they would have voted differently. But the 3,000 Americans soldiers who have died in Iraq don't get a do-over now, and neither do the senators who helped send them there. Twenty-three senators had the courage to say no to the president in 2002. It seems to us that the ones who didn't have a special obligation now to make things right, or at least to make them as right as they can be with so much blood under the bridge.

But maybe we're being too hard on those who have come around. Twenty-five of the senators who voted in favor of the use-of-force resolution in 2002 either didn't respond to ABC's request for their views or refused to engage in the hypothetical question.

And then there's John McCain.

The Arizona senator stands by his vote on the war -- he wants to send more troops to Iraq, after all -- but he's been engaging in some revisionist history about who thought what at the time.

On MSNBC Thursday, McCain said: "When I voted to support this war, I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough, and those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of an easy task, then I'm sorry they were mistaken. Maybe they didn't know what they were voting for."

Maybe they didn't, but maybe McCain didn't, either. As Think Progress and Keith Olbermann noted Thursday, McCain said repeatedly in 2002 that the war in Iraq wouldn't be so hard. On Sept. 24, 2002, McCain told Larry King that, while the United States would lose "some" troops in Iraq, "success will be fairly easy." On Sept. 29, 2002, he told Wolf Blitzer that no "military operation anywhere is going to be easy" but then said that war in Iraq wouldn't involve "house-to-house fighting in Baghdad" or the "bloodletting of trading American bodies for Iraqi bodies." "I don't think it's 'easy,' but I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time," he said.

And as the Senate debated the use-of-force resolution on Oct. 10, 2002, McCain made the same sort of "greeted as liberators" prediction that Dick Cheney would later offer. "I wish the Bush administration and its predecessor had given more serious support to internal and external Iraqi opposition than has been the case," McCain said on the Senate floor. "But it's a safe assumption that Iraqis will be grateful to whoever is responsible for securing their freedom."

To be fair to McCain, he seemed to be focused on the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein and not on what would come after it. But to be fair to everyone else, McCain -- and his allies in the Bush administration -- should have been focused on both. We're not sure that the failure to look ahead or the after-the-fact claim to have done so makes McCain the day's "worst person in the world," as Olbermann crowned him Thursday. But it does suggest that McCain's got no right to argue that he understood his own vote for the war in 2002 any better than 76 of his colleagues did.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Iraq War John Mccain R-ariz. U.s. Senate