Was Bill Clinton "opposed" to the Iraq war "from the beginning"?

The answer, as you might expect, is complicated.


Tim Grieve
November 28, 2007 6:54PM (UTC)

Campaigning for his wife in Iowa Tuesday, Bill Clinton said he "opposed" the war in Iraq "from the beginning."

It probably isn't the most helpful thing he could have said; with the race growing ever tighter in Iowa, the last thing Hillary Clinton needs is somebody reminding Democrats that she voted in favor of the resolution that authorized George W. Bush to use force in Iraq. But is it even true?

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The answer, as you might expect, is a little complicated.

Lots of people "opposed" the war in Iraq "from" -- or at least "at" -- "the beginning." Among them was Barack Obama, who appeared at an antiwar rally in October 2002 and said he opposed "a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

In speeches in 2002 and early 2003, Bill Clinton made many of the same points Obama did -- there should be more time for inspections, more efforts at diplomacy, more focus on al-Qaida -- but he stated his "opposition" in a much more nuanced way.

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At a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2002, Clinton said unequivocally that Saddam Hussein "has laboratories working to produce chemical and biological weapons." He then asked himself -- and answered for himself -- a series of questions about what it all meant. "So would it be a good idea if [Saddam] weren't there? And were replaced by someone committed to a responsible course with regard to weapons of mass destruction? Yes. Would it be a good idea if the people of Iraq weren't siding with him, since he's a murderer and a thug? Yes. Should we unilaterally attack him? Well, that depends."

Elaborating later in response to a question, Clinton said: "First of all, there are all kinds of logistical problems with a full-scale military invasion if that's what we want to do ... But it clearly could be done, and it wouldn't be that much [of a] problem if you could take the resources away from other things and you want to spend a fortune, you could do that. I just believe, looking down the road, the most important thing is to get our priorities in order. I don't have any use for Saddam Hussein. And I've already told you: I think he's got the labs up and going. And he kicked the inspectors out. So he's in violation of U.N. rules. And they are actually doing bad things there; I'm convinced of it. But I think what you have to ask yourself is, in what order do we have to deal with this? He has no missiles to put warheads on that would reach us. The only missile he's ever used [was] on his neighbors ... and he used mustard gas on his own people ... but he fired some Scuds into Israel after he was attacked in the Gulf War. So what I think is, A, let's ... make the most intense possible efforts to build a legitimate peace process and have diminishing of the violence in the Middle East between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis. B, is look at what our options are, and try to find a way to do whatever we do with as much of a coalition as possible, and not unilaterally. Without giving up the right to take unilateral action if the intelligence indicates it's the right thing to do. That's basically what I think we ought to do. But the most important thing I have to say is hear the right message coming out of the Arab summit, show them that we heard them, emphasize getting a peace process in the Middle East first."

At a speech before the Democratic Leadership Council in December 2002, Clinton said that "Iraq is important" but that "al-Qaida should be our top priority."

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As Bush marched toward war, Clinton gave a speech on the legacy of Winston Churchill in England on March 8, 2003. On Iraq, he said that he thought Churchill would advise the United States not to "give up the force option ... because there is a lot of chemical and biological material there. You can always kill someone tomorrow or next week or next month; we can't bring them back to life; we can try one more time to get a schedule for disarmament."

Eleven days later, on March 19, 2003, President Bush announced that war had begun.

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In a speech the next week," Clinton said that he expected that "this conflict in Iraq will not last long," and that while people may have "different feelings about the facts of how it came about," it was time to pray for the troops and the president "who has to make the calls."

"This was a hard case," Clinton said. "You could argue this, flat or round, up or down. I personally think it's very important to get rid of the chemical and biological stocks in Iraq. But I think it's also important that America be a leading force for bringing the world together. There are plenty of people out there trying to tear it apart. And so, I wouldn't be too upset about that. We just need to get this business over with, get rid of those chemical and biological weapons, and get back to the business of creating the 21st century world we want."

In the ensuing days and weeks, Clinton said that he "disagreed" with France's decision to stay out of the war and sympathized with Tony Blair's ultimate decision to get in. "What he tried to do was to threaten force but keep the world together so that without war, we could strengthen the U.N., preserve America's alliance with Europe and disarm Saddam Hussein. That's what he wanted to do and that's what I felt was the right thing to do," Clinton explained during a speech in late March 2003. "Blair was then put in the position of deciding, 'Am I going to stick with America, and at least know I disarmed the guy? Or am I going to say, I don't like the way this has played out and not do it and wind up being with the crowd that if they get their way, we'll never disarm him?' He had a Hobson's choice. So did a lot of members of our party. Most of them decided, 'Well, we are where we are. We've got to support the troops. We ought to disarm the guy and then try to get the world community back involved in building an Iraq so it doesn't become a 51st state. We should just disarm him and then get the global community involved in building a peaceful democratic future. The people would be better off with nearly any other kind of government.'"

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A year later -- as polls showed that a majority of Americans disapproved of the way Bush was handling Iraq -- Time asked Clinton if he thought the president had been right to invade. His answer:

"You know, I have repeatedly defended President Bush against the left on Iraq, even though I think he should have waited until the U.N. inspections were over. I don't believe he went in there for oil. We didn't go in there for imperialist or financial reasons. We went in there because he bought the Wolfowitz-Cheney analysis that the Iraqis would be better off, we could shake up the authoritarian Arab regimes in the Middle East, and our leverage to make peace between the Palestinians and Israelis would be increased.

"At the moment the U.N. inspectors were kicked out in '98, this is the proper language: there were substantial quantities of botulinum and aflatoxin, as I recall, some bioagents, I believe there were those, and VX and ricin, chemical agents, unaccounted for. Keep in mind, that's all we ever had to work on. We also thought there were a few missiles, some warheads, and maybe a very limited amount of nuclear laboratory capacity.

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"After 9/11, let's be fair here, if you had been president, you'd think, 'Well, this fellow bin Laden just turned these three airplanes full of fuel into weapons of mass destruction,' right? Arguably they were super-powerful chemical weapons. Think about it that way. So, you're sitting there as president, you're reeling in the aftermath of this, so, yeah, you want to go get bin Laden and do Afghanistan and all that. But you also have to say, 'Well, my first responsibility now is to try everything possible to make sure that this terrorist network and other terrorist networks cannot reach chemical and biological weapons or small amounts of fissile material. I've got to do that.'

"That's why I supported the Iraq thing. There was a lot of stuff unaccounted for. So I thought the President had an absolute responsibility to go to the U.N. and say, 'Look, guys, after 9/11, you have got to demand that Saddam Hussein let us finish the inspection process.' You couldn't responsibly ignore [the possibility that] a tyrant had these stocks. I never really thought he'd [use them]. What I was far more worried about was that he'd sell this stuff or give it away ... So that's why I thought Bush did the right thing to go back. When you're the president, and your country has just been through what we had, you want everything to be accounted for."

So was the war worth the cost?

"It's a judgment that no one can make definitively yet," Clinton told Time in that 2004 interview. "I would not have done it until after Hans Blix finished his job. Having said that, over 600 of our people have died since the conflict was over. We've got a big stake now in making it work. I want it to have been worth it, even though I didn't agree with the timing of the attack. I think if you have a pluralistic, secure, stable Iraq, the people of Iraq will be better off, and it might help the process of internal reform in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. I think right now, getting rid of Saddam's tyranny, ironically, has made Iraq more vulnerable to terrorism coming in from the outside. But any open society is going to be more vulnerable than any tyranny to that."

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Tim Grieve

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

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