WASHINGTON ― If a president wants to go to war with another country ― say, North Korea, for example ― would Congress even try to stop him?
In the aftermath of 9/11, no blunder was more tragic than the country’s war in Iraq. In that case, Congress did little to stop President George W. Bush and his administration’s march into that conflict. Even Democrats failed to question the legitimacy of the evidence used to justify the war, and the vast majority of Democrats voted to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq.
On this week’s episode of “Candidate Confessional,” we interviewed two Democrats, former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who defied their party ― and the majority of the country ― and voted against the Iraq War authorization. We wanted to know what led up to their vote, how they felt about it, and what lessons, if any, could be learned.
Durbin’s first suspicion that Iraq was on Bush’s radar was during the president’s 2002 State of the Union speech in which he included Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” In that speech, Bush dwelled on Iraq a bit longer than the other countries, openly wondering about the country’s weapons of mass destruction and what Saddam Hussein was hiding from the rest of the world.
The media, for the most part, bought the Bush administration’s case for war. This shocked Conrad. “If you watched the evening news on almost any of the networks, if you read the print media, including the New York Times, there was this constant, incessant emphasis on war with Iraq,” Conrad recalled. “It was almost blood fever in the country. This struck me as very dangerous, reckless and completely detached from any reality as I understood it.”
The fervor for war drowned out any dissent and made Conrad and Durbin feel like they were living in some bizarro world ― a world where their colleagues erroneously insisted on a connection between the 9/11 terrorists and Hussein. Durbin remembered being yelled at while walking through an airport in Chicago. He kept his replies short and moved along.
“I thought this was one of the greatest mistakes we’ve ever made,” Conrad said. “I had top military leaders come to me privately, I mean very top uniform political leaders, and tell me they thought it was the greatest mistake in American military history.”
Why didn’t they speak out?
“Well, you don’t speak out if you are in the chain of command,” Conrad replied. “That’s just not done.”
Conrad thinks America could launch a war again based on faulty evidence.
“If an administration again pounds the drums for war and the media reacted as they did, without serious thought, with just a visceral emotional response rather than thinking critically and seriously and responsibly, I don’t think what happened in Iraq will unfortunately matter very much. I wish I could say to you something else,” Conrad said.
Conrad added: “If the president of the United States wants to take this nation to war, he can take this nation to war. And stopping that is incredibly difficult.”
Listen to the full episode above.