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Senate Foreign Relations Chair Joe Biden before a hearing on policy options in Iraq on January 10, 2007.
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

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Joe Biden’s Iraq problem

The former vice president has a long, complicated, and some would say checkered history with Iraq. Here’s the full story.

Joe Biden says that when deciding whether to vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2002, he took President George W. Bush at his word and was led astray.

“[Bush] looked me in the eye in the Oval Office. He said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program,” Biden told NPR in September, explaining his Senate vote. “He got them in and before you know it, we had ‘shock and awe.’”

To hear the former senator and vice president tell it, Biden was one of the many high-profile Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq War after the 9/11 attacks, only to regret it immediately after.

But his record, well documented in speeches on the Senate floor, congressional hearings, and press interviews from 2001 through his time in the White House, is that of a senator bullish about the push to war who helped sell the Bush administration’s pitch to the American public — and of a vice president who left an unmistakable imprint on President Barack Obama’s backing of a dictator in Iraq.

Biden, whose campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, is one of two 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — the other being Sen. Bernie Sanders — with congressional records that stretch back to the start of the Iraq War. In the fall of 2002, Biden committed what anti-war activists call the “original sin” by voting for the war when he was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Sanders, then a member of the House of Representatives, was vocal in opposition.

Sen. Joe Biden sits with Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the start of a hearing on September 26, 2002.
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Those close to Biden describe his record on Iraq as one less moored in policy than in personal connections. Biden has long touted a dedication to working on the inside, maintaining civility and forming bonds with even those he vehemently disagrees with. That’s his formula for making change.

“There’s plenty of room to criticize him, but I don’t think this a purely cynical case of revisionism,” one former Democratic Senate aide told Vox about his Iraq record. “The sense in the Senate was that there was a pathway out of this thing, and the Bush administration blew it.”

But Biden’s fiercest critics point out that the timeline doesn’t add up. Lawmakers knew from the beginning the shakiness of the Bush administration’s case for going to war with Iraq, and Biden not only went along with it, he championed it.

Now a decade and a half later, as voters decide if Biden should represent the Democrats against Trump, they will have to decide if Biden’s checkered history with Iraq may impede him from the ultimate prize. Some have already made up their mind.

“What’s the central reason that Congress approved the war? Key Democrats like Biden crossed over and made a deal with Bush,” says Robert Naiman, with the anti-interventionist Just Foreign Policy group.

Biden voted for — and helped advance — the Bush agenda

The simple truth is that Biden voted to give Bush broad power to go to war with Iraq. He did so as a top-ranking Democrat in the Senate: the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he did so at a time when the majority of Americans did not support taking immediate military action.

How he got to that point involves several twists.

The Bush administration’s campaign for war powers began in the summer of 2002. Vice President Dick Cheney declared definitively that Saddam Hussein was building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction — a claim echoed by American intelligence officers, who were called to Congress to detail those weapons, and by the media outlets who quoted them. As we know now, those claims were based on flimsy evidence and turned out to be incorrect.

Bush also said he needed war authorization to add teeth to a diplomatic effort through the United Nations to get inspectors on the ground in Iraq. But the administration wasn’t prioritizing diplomacy; they were asking for a broad war authorization that gave the White House immense freedom to use military force in Iraq.

Biden bought into the Bush administration’s argument. He elevated the administration’s concerns about Hussein in the press. And in the months leading up to the vote authorizing war, he organized a series of Senate hearings, in close coordination with the White House, during which he echoed the administration’s talking points about weapons of mass destruction.

President George W. Bush sits between Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL, left) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE, right) in the Cabinet room at the White House on July 25, 2001.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“In my judgment, President Bush is right to be concerned about Saddam Hussein’s relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that he may use them or share them with terrorists,” Biden said at an August hearing.

“These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power,” he continued. “President Bush has stated his determination to remove Saddam from power, a view many in Congress share.”

Those hearings have been characterized by his supporters as Biden’s attempt to seriously and methodically weigh the price of war. And, to be sure, Biden did note: “If that course is pursued, in my view, it matters profoundly how we do it and what we do after we succeed.”

But, as has been reported in progressive outlets, the hearings included scant testimony from skeptical anti-war voices. And throughout them, there was vocal opposition among Biden’s Democratic ranks.

“The administration’s arguments just don’t add up,” Sen. Russ Feingold said on the Senate floor in October 2002. Sen. Paul Wellstone similarly raised concerns, questioning a lack of planning on the Bush administration’s part to account for the potential fallout from military action. He also raised questions about the potential death toll not only among Americans, but also Iraqi civilians, and the billions of dollars that would have to go toward a rebuilding effort.

Biden’s skepticism, however, was largely reserved for the Bush administration’s specific ask: a catch-all war authorization for Iraq. Biden supported a narrower war power authorization prioritizing the WMDs. He joined Republicans Sens. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, the latter of whom would go on to be Obama’s defense secretary years later, in crafting an amendment to the war authorization to limit the scope of Bush’s powers.

But another Democrat foiled that effort: Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, struck a deal with Bush to authorize the use of military force in a war — a move that angered Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate, including Biden. Gephardt, at the time weighing a presidential run, was accused of playing politics.

And Biden blinked.

The vote in the Senate was held on October 11, 2002. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution passed the Democrat-controlled Senate 77 to 23; 29 Democrats voted in support, including Biden. The final resolution gave Bush broad power to go to war in Iraq.

“The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” it reads.

In the hours of debate that preceded the vote, Biden echoed the Bush administration’s rhetoric.

“I do not believe it is a rush to war but a march to peace and security,” Biden said on the Senate floor. “I believe failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war would occur.”

Biden’s wartime alliance with Republicans

Bush declared the start of the war in March 2003 with a campaign of hundreds of airstrikes on military targets intended to “shock and awe” Hussein and his forces. By May, Hussein’s government had fallen, and Bush had declared “Mission Accomplished.”

But it was only the beginning.

Bush on the Lincoln’s deck with the banner aloft behind him.
President George W. Bush addresses the nation aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln May 1, 2003, with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him.
Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

In Biden’s retelling, the war authorization was only a means to strengthen Bush’s position in diplomatic talks. But to Bush, it was clear the war authorization was more than just diplomatic strategy — a sentiment reflected in Biden’s own rhetoric at the time. Congress had given Bush broad power to use military force, and he did.

“I think Biden really did believe that getting a United National Security Council resolution would have gotten the inspections,” the former Senate aide said. “Pretty early on he understood that the situation was not going well. The Bush administration was signaling that we won this thing and Biden, Chuck Hagel, and John McCain were three credible voices saying there’s something else going on here.”

Democrats lost control of the Senate in the 2002 midterm elections, meaning Biden also lost control of the Foreign Relations Committee chair. The following years for Biden, until Democrats retook control in 2006, were defined by his close relationships with Republicans like McCain, Hagel, and Lugar, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. They travelled to Iraq together, did press tours together, and praised each other’s judgment (though Biden’s relationship with McCain would eventually sour in the run-up to the 2008 election).

During this time, Biden’s position was that the war was “vastly underfunded and undermanned,” as he told PBS in June 2003. “We’re so woefully unprepared because of judgments made from the failure to plan before we went in of what we were going to do in the aftermath.”

In July 2003, Biden during a Senate hearing pressed then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and two other top officials about the administration’s low-balling of costs to fund the war, asking, “When are you guys starting to be honest with us?”

But even then, Biden wasn’t entirely critical of the decision to invade Iraq.

“We have town councils set up. There is actual nascent democracy beginning to flourish there. The oil fields didn’t get blown up. There is relative peace in the north,” Biden said in a July 2003 interview with CNN:

I’m not suggesting there are not successes. I want us to succeed there, but everybody you will speak to who knows anything about this will tell you we need another 5,000 — our own people tell us we need another 5,000 European police officers on the ground now to help train their police. We need another 30,000 forces from other countries to help alleviate the strain on our forces. ... If we don’t make real progress very soon, what will happen is we’ll lose the support of the Iraqi people, and then there will be hell to pay. All we’re trying to do is get us to face up to that straight-up now, make the changes necessary, and let’s win this peace.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s claim that Hussein had amassed weapons of mass destruction was collapsing. Former diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote in the New York Times that same month that he’d found nothing when the CIA sent him to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium there.

In October 2003, Iraq Survey Group inspector David Kay told Congress that they “have not yet found stocks of weapons.” In July 2004, a Senate intelligence report found that the US intelligence community’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s WMD capabilities had been deeply flawed. A British report that same month also found no evidence of WMDs. The final CIA report came out in late September 2004: Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

And then Biden changed his story. “I never believed they had weapons of mass destruction,” he said at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in October 2004. That statement looks a lot like either a lie in the moment or an inadvertent admission that he had lied in the run-up to the war.

It would be one thing if Biden’s Iraq legacy ended there. But he would only add to it — perhaps in even grander ways — from inside the White House.

Biden’s Maliki decision haunts his Iraq legacy as vice president

The trajectory of Biden’s vice presidency changed dramatically during a June 2009 national security meeting in the Oval Office. “Joe, you do Iraq,” President Barack Obama said, turning to his No. 2. With that, the charge to end the war in Iraq — one of Obama’s signature campaign promises — was Biden’s responsibility.

Those in Obama’s circle say Biden was handed the Iraq portfolio because Obama trusted his years of foreign affairs experience and knowledge about the country. Others were a little skeptical due to Biden’s Senate record, including his advocacy for splitting Iraq up into three separate regions.

But Iraqis who worked with the Obama White House at the time felt there was another reason Biden got the nod: The president didn’t want to wade into what he viewed as his predecessor’s mess.

“They dealt with us as a legacy and baggage,” a senior Iraqi official told Vox, asking for anonymity to speak freely about his interactions with the previous administration. “They weren’t comfortable dealing with Iraq.”

“Biden was more comfortable working with us than the president was,” the official said.

President-elect Barack Obama listens to Vice President-elect Joe Biden describe his recent trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Pakistan, on January 14, 2009.
Gerald Herbert/AP

There was no question who spearheaded Iraqi policy in the early days of the Obama administration: By 2014, Biden had made 64 calls to Iraq. Obama, meanwhile, had only made four. It’s why many blame Biden for what happened next — the backing of a brutal sectarian leader, the withdrawal of US troops, and the rise of ISIS.

But debate still rages in Washington and foreign capitals: Was he given an impossible task to manage as best he could, or did he repeatedly make the wrong calls when they mattered most?

Biden backs Nouri al-Maliki

Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, became Iraq’s US-backed prime minister in 2006 as the country descended into civil war. He was no one’s idea of a perfect choice, but he did (at least initially) help the US clamp down on widespread violence as the Bush administration sent in a surge of troops in 2007 to quell it.

Biden was against the surge in the Senate. “I totally oppose this surging of additional American troops into Baghdad,” Biden said in 2006, just before becoming the Foreign Relations Committee chair once again. “It’s contrary to the overwhelming body of informed opinion, both inside and outside the administration.”

Maliki’s assistance, mainly in the form of squashing violent Shia militias, would help him stay in America’s good graces for Bush’s final years. He and Bush would even hold weekly video conferences to keep up to date, though the Iraqi premier used the time mostly to gripe about the problems he faced in parliament and the nation writ large.

But it wasn’t until the end of the Bush era and the start of Obama’s presidency that US officials began to seriously question whether Maliki could lead the divided nation.

Starting in 2008, Maliki “began a systematic campaign to destroy the Iraqi state and replace it with his private office and his political party,” Ali Khedery, a former top US diplomat in Baghdad who was close to Maliki, wrote in the Washington Post. Maliki did this by firing professional military leaders he deemed disloyal and replacing them with cronies. He even forced Iraq’s chief justice to ban some of his top political rivals from participating in crucial 2010 parliamentary elections.

Despite his best efforts, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition lost by only two seats to Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya group in that vote. The result gave neither party a clear majority to lead the country, and there was genuine worry in Washington and Baghdad that negotiations to form a ruling coalition could take a year or longer. That was a major problem, as the US needed someone in power to reauthorize a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 2011 allowing American troops to stay in Iraq with certain legal immunities and basing authorities.

So the key question became: Support the winner Allawi, or continue to back Maliki? “It really was heavily in flux after that election,” Robert Ford, the deputy US ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010, told Vox about the debate inside the American government.

Top US officials, including Ford and James Mattis, then the top US general for the Middle East, pleaded with Biden not to side with Maliki. By that point violence around the country hadn’t gone away but was manageable, and many thought it was the time to focus on reconstruction and economic issues in Iraq. They felt Maliki, who was increasingly acting as an authoritarian, wasn’t the guy to lead the country forward.

“Prime Minister Maliki is highly untrustworthy, Mr. Vice President,” the former Trump defense secretary recalls saying in his new book Call Sign Chaos.

Vice President Joe Biden shakes hand with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a press conference following a meeting in Baghdad on July 3, 2009.
Khalid Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

Emma Sky, who was the political adviser to Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the leader of US troops in Iraq, recounted to me a meeting she had with Biden in August 2010. “Iraqis had voted for change,” Sky, a British national, argued to the vice president, “and you have to show people that change can come about through politics, otherwise they’ll revert back to violence.”

“And he goes on about how Al Gore really won the 2000 presidential election,” she continued. “He kept giving these analogies that weren’t exactly appropriate.”

But for Biden it was appropriate. As many who came to understand Biden’s thinking told Vox, he viewed Iraq through two prisms. The first was that its political problems were similar to those in America, where even the highest tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq could be overcome like political squabbles between Democrats and Republicans in the US. That led to the second prism, which was that the key to solving Iraq’s issues was to get its people over their ancient hatreds.

“Look, I know these people,” Biden told Sky in that August 2010 meeting. “My grandfather was Irish and hated the British. It’s like in the Balkans. They all grow up hating each other.”

That view bothered Sky. “He really felt he understood Iraq,” she told Vox. “That’s pretty scary because even experts are surprised about what Iraq is like.”

“I don’t think Biden is a great intellect. He relies on his instincts and feeling,” Sky continued.

That sense seems to have led Biden to back Maliki, despite some advice to the contrary. Part of that was because Biden and others in the administration knew the Iraqi premier well enough to work with him, despite his faults.

“There was a very strong contingent that said Maliki is that devil we know,” Jeffrey Feltman, who headed the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said of Biden and others in an interview with the Atlantic in June.

The other reason is that Maliki had more political backing in Iraq to stay in power than Allawi had to take it, as even some of Maliki and Biden’s critics admitted to me. The Shia firmly supported Maliki — as did Iran — and it was difficult for Allawi to gain enough support to take over.

Due to Biden’s backing of Maliki, the US helped to broker a deal that would see him retain the premiership in December 2010 and lead Iraq, even though his party had technically come in second in the election.

Those close to Biden dispute that the US tilted negotiations in Maliki’s favor, saying there wasn’t another viable option. “There was a lot of opposition to him, particularly among the American military, so I was willing to try to delay this thing and see if we could find alternatives,” James Jeffrey, who became the US ambassador to Iraq in August 2010, told Reuters five years ago. “We never found one.”

Even certain Iraqis see it that way, too. “I think they had no choice but to work with the key players of the time,” the senior Iraqi official told Vox. “The US was stuck, but it wasn’t going to reengineer Iraqi politics.”

Either way, Maliki kept his job — and immediately made the work for the US that much harder.

The US withdraws troops from Iraq — and ISIS rises

In 2011, Maliki knew the US was desperate. It wanted a SOFA so it could keep troops in Iraq, giving service members legitimacy to be there and immunity from Iraqi law.

And the premier also surely knew that Biden believed he’d deliver the desired agreement. “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise,” Biden said during an October 2010 video conference with advisers. “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA.”

But Maliki drove a hard bargain, consistently saying he wouldn’t grant immunity to a single American soldier, which derailed negotiations. One theory for his hardline stance, as former US diplomat in Iraq Barbara Leaf posited to the Atlantic in June, is that he “started anticipating the end of US troops and the end of people telling him what to do.”

Whatever the reason, the troops agreement — again, one of the main reasons Biden and the rest of the US had scrambled to help organize an Iraqi administration they thought would be friendly to Washington — didn’t come through. The lack of a deal forced Obama’s hand in October 21, 2011, when he ordered the roughly 45,000 US troops in Iraq out of the country by year’s end.

With more freedom to do what he wanted, Maliki for the next few years continued, and in many cases deepened, his sectarian rule. He built a Shia-dominated sectarian state and refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis, who already felt disenfranchised by their loss of influence after the US pushed them out of power in 2003. Police killed peaceful Sunni protesters and used anti-terrorism laws to mass-arrest Sunni civilians.

Maliki also made political alliances with violent Shia militias, infuriating and terrifying Sunnis.

ISIS cannily exploited that anger and fear to recruit new fighters from disaffected Sunni communities. With the US distracted by the Arab Spring and the growing civil war in Syria, the Obama administration failed to adequately respond to the clear upswell in the terrorist group’s ranks by late 2013.

“I think the criticism of us that we didn’t see the problem is unfair,” Antony Blinken, a top Obama official and now a Biden campaign adviser, told the Atlantic in the June article. “It’s fair to say that we were not effective in dealing with it before the fact.”

When the US did eventually respond, Biden proved instrumental in coordinating it. The US sent warplanes into Iraq to target ISIS’s militants and told Iraqi leaders that more assistance would come if Maliki stepped aside. The sense was that Maliki’s leadership would only make the problem worse — not to mention that his heavy-handed policies had helped set the conditions for ISIS’s rise in the first place.

Despite struggling mightily to stay in power, eventually Maliki stepped down in August 2014. Of course, for some it was too little too late: the US had backed Maliki and withdrew troops that could’ve helped avert disaster.

A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State (IS) group in a tunnel on March 1, 2017.
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

But the vice president was also a key player in developing the strategy, touted by US generals ever since, to work with local allies to fight ISIS on the ground and retake the territory it had captured in Iraq and Syria — a mission that was eventually completed by the Trump administration in March.

ISIS is still not defeated, and Trump’s policies in Syria might help it make a comeback. What’s more, Iraq still remains in strife, with weeks-long protests rocking the country and threatening widespread violence. The question for many is how much blame Biden shoulders for Iraq’s recent past and current state.

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Has Biden’s Iraq legacy gotten “worse”?

Everyone Vox spoke to for this story, even Biden’s fiercest critics on Iraq, unfailingly said that Biden then had a warm presence, and came to meetings extremely prepared. Few questioned the former vice president’s dedication to get Iraq right during his eight years at the White House, and made clear that Bush made the original sin of invading Iraq in the first place.

But how wrong, so to speak, did Biden end up being when Iraq was his charge?

Ford, the former deputy US ambassador to Iraq, told Vox that most of the country’s ills that time — particularly ISIS’s rise — was Maliki’s fault.

“I do not blame the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw troops entirely from Iraq” because that’s not what led to ISIS, he said. “What I do blame are the incredibly sectarian policies of Maliki. That, more than anything, is what really led to the spread of ISIS.”

But Sky, the top adviser to the US military in Iraq at the time, thinks the Biden-led Iraq policy under Obama was a total failure with far-reaching implications.

“Biden’s legacy has gotten worse,” Sky told Vox. The Obama administration allowed ISIS to gain strength, fuel instability in Syria, and trigger a refugee crisis that helped foment populist politics in Europe — including a vote in favor of Brexit that Sky says might’ve gone differently otherwise. “In America, you don’t feel the consequences of these wars, you’re far away. But in Europe these problems are all on our doorstep.”

The debate over Biden’s Iraq legacy now rests squarely with American voters deciding whether or not he deserves a shot at the top job. Will his time in Iraq and general foreign policy knowledge boost his credentials, or will the problems that faced the Obama administration haunt his candidacy?

That, like Iraq’s future, is still up in the air.

Sen. Joe Biden reads documents prior to a news conference on Capitol Hill on December 13, 2005.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

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