WASHINGTON (AP) — Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow sat in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s conference room at the Pentagon and listened as he argued that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

At some point in the presentation — one of many lawmaker briefings by President George W. Bush’s administration ahead of the October 2002 vote authorizing violence in Iraq — military leaders showed a picture of trucks around the country they believed were hauling weapons supplies could. But the case sounded flimsy, and Stabenow, then a newly minted senator, noted that the date in the photo was months old.

“There wasn’t enough information to convince me that they actually had any connection to what happened on 9/11 or that there was justification for an attack,” Stabenow said in a recent interview, referring to the 2001 attacks, which were part of the Bush administration’s basic argument for the Iraq invasion.

“I really thought about the young men and women we would send into battle,” she said. “I have a son and a daughter – would I vote to send them to war based on this evidence? In the end, for me, the answer was no.”

As with many of her colleagues, Stabenow’s “no” vote in the early hours of October 11, 2002 was not without political risk. The Bush administration and many of the swing-state Democratic voters firmly believed that the United States should go to war in Iraq, and lawmakers knew that the House and Senate votes authorizing force were huge would have consequences.

Indeed, this month’s bipartisan votes in the House and Senate were a poignant moment in American history that would reverberate for decades — the Bush administration’s pivotal allegations about weapons programs eventually proved unfounded, the Middle East was permanently transformed, and almost 5,000 US soldiers were killed in the war. Iraqi deaths are estimated at hundreds of thousands.

Only now, 20 years after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, is Congress seriously considering rescinding it, with a Senate vote expected this week to overturn the 2002 and 1991 authorizations to use violence against Iraq. Bipartisan supporters say the repeal is years overdue because Saddam’s regime is long gone and Iraq is now a strategic partner of the United States.

For senators who cast their ballots two decades ago, it’s a moment that comes full circle and triggers a mix of sadness, regret and reflection. Many consider it the toughest tune they’ve ever done.

The vote was based “on the biggest lie ever told in American history,” said Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, then a member of the House of Representatives who voted to authorize the war. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that “all of us who voted for it are probably slow to admit” that weapons of mass destruction don’t exist. But he defends the vote based on what they knew at the time. “There was reason to fear” about Saddam and what he might have done if he had had the guns, Grassley said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, then a member of the House of Representatives running for Senate, says the war would have been worth it if Iraq could become a democracy.

“What can you say 20 years later?” Graham said last week, reflecting on his own approval. “Intelligence was flawed.”

Another “yes” vote in the Senate that night was New York Senator Chuck Schumer, now Senate Majority Leader. Because the vote came a year after 9/11 devastated his hometown, he said he believed at the time that the president deserved the benefit of the doubt when a nation is under attack.

“Of course, with hindsight, it is clear that the President screwed up the war from start to finish and should never have received that benefit,” Schumer said in a statement. “Now that the war is firmly behind us, we are one step closer to putting the war powers back where they belong — in the hands of Congress.”

Twenty years later, support has turned around. Then only 28 senators voted against the approval. All but one were Democrats. Today, about the same number of senators are voting against canceling the 2002 and 1991 measures, arguing that cancellation could project weakness onto US enemies and hamper future operations. But all opponents are Republicans.

Among the Republicans voting to repeal is Grassley. He said withdrawing the war license would prevent those powers from being misinterpreted and abused in the future.

In 2002, the Bush administration worked aggressively to rally support for an invasion of Iraq by disseminating what turned out to be false intelligence claims about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers attended briefing after briefing with military leaders and White House officials, in groups and one-on-one, as the administration exerted political pressure on Democrats in particular.

In the end, the vote was strongly bipartisan, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, DS.D., House Democratic Chairman Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and others supporting Bush’s motion.

Joe Biden also voted for it as a senator from Delaware and now supports its repeal as president.

Other senior Democrats called for opposition. In one of the many Senate speeches invoking the country’s history, the late Senator Robert Byrd, DW.V., urged his colleagues to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, where “almost every day someone is found on this wall crying for a loved one, a father, a son, a brother, a friend whose name is on this wall.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., issued a similar warning during the plenary debate, saying he believes fear and anxiety could fuel sentiment for an Iraq invasion. “I caution and ask my colleagues to think about this,” Durbin said, adding that “America has had periods of fear in its past.”

Durbin, now the No. 2 Senate Democrat, recalled voting against the resolution in the Senate earlier this month amid a “scary national debate” over whether the US should invade Iraq. The threat of weapons of mass destruction “was pounded into our heads day by day,” Durbin said. “But many of us were skeptical.”

“I look back on it, as I’m sure others will, as one of the most important votes I’ve ever cast,” Durbin said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., agrees that “I remember thinking this was the most serious thing I can ever do.”

She says there has been “emotional pressure” on the environment from the public and the media that the US needs to show Iraq and the world it’s tough. She voted against the resolution after ruling that there was insufficient evidence to support the Bush administration’s arguments and after speaking to many of her constituents at home who opposed the idea of ​​an Iraq invasion.

For many legislators, the political pressure was great. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, then a member of the House of Representatives and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he became “upset” at home over his “no” vote after the September 11 attacks so his condition had claimed many lives. He made the right decision, he says, but “it was full of political challenges.”

Similarly, Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore. recalls that the idea of ​​invading Iraq was popular at home and the state’s other senator, Republican Gordon Smith, supported it, as did Daschle and other influential Democrats. But he was a new member of the Intelligence Committee and had regular access to behind-closed-door briefings by administration officials. He was not convinced by their arguments and voted no.

“It was really a dramatic moment in American history,” says Wyden. “You wish you could just unravel it and get another chance.”

Senate Armed Forces Chairman Jack Reed, DR.I., then a newly minted senator who also voted against the resolution, says the war “made no strategic sense” and diverted the country’s focus from the troops serving wage war in Afghanistan. “Just an absolutely bad strategy,” he says, which also helped build other powerful countries like China and Russia.

For those who voted for invasion, the reflection may be more difficult.

Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic senator from New York, was forced to defend her vote when she ran for president twice, eventually calling it a mistake and her “biggest regret.” Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin solemnly told an Iowa PBS station a few years ago that his Senate vote to authorize violence in Iraq was “the worst vote I’ve ever cast in my life.”

Markey says, “I regret leaving” Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials. “It was a mistake to rely on the Bush administration to tell the truth,” Markey said in a brief interview last week.

Graham says he spoke to Bush about an unrelated matter last week, but they also spoke about the anniversary of the war.

“I told him, ‘Mr. President, Iraq has not retreated from democracy,’” Graham said. “‘It was imperfect. But if in the end Saddam Hussein is eliminated and replaced by a democracy that can work with the United States, then it will be worth it. It turned out to be in America’s interest.’”

Bush’s answer was uncertain.

“He said he believes history will be the judge of whether or not Iraq can continue on its democratic path,” Graham said.


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