Bernie Sanders on Iraq
Iraq and the United States have had a complicated relationship for over a quarter-century. Several important points highlight Bernie’s record on foreign policy and national security with regard to Iraq:
Gulf War and Desert Storm: Bernie voted against the joint resolution to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 1991, calling for economic sanctions and other diplomatic means to address the conflict instead.
Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom: Bernie voted against the joint resolution to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2002, and voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Iraq War Spending Bills to Aid Veterans and Vermonters: Bernie supported four war-spending bills, in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011; he voted against six others.
The Rise And Fall Of ISIS In Iraq: Bernie warned us of the power vacuum that would be created as a result of invading Iraq and toppling its government.
Learn From the War In Iraq: Bernie believes it’s important to learn from the mistakes made during the Iraq War and use that knowledge when making future foreign policy decisions.
Why have we been involved in Iraq for a quarter-century?
Good question — a brief history can explain a lot.
Saddam Hussein became President of Iraq in 1979, after forcing out Hassan al-Bakr. Hussein was a U.S. ally for over a decade. However, when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990, that alliance dissolved, and Hussein was promptly denounced by the United States. Most of the international community, including members of the United Nations Security Council, condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Almost immediately, the U.S. joined 15 combatant nations and 24 non-combatant nations in a coalition to free Kuwait and defend Saudi Arabia.
This conflict, the The Gulf War, ended in February 1991.
In October 1998, after years of crushing economic sanctions, the U.S. enacted the Iraq Liberation Act which called for the removal of the Hussein regime. In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. President Bush said the coalition’s mission was to “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people”. It was later revealed that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that the alleged ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda were fabricated. The Iraq War lasted for nine years. In December 2011, President Obama authorized withdrawal of U.S. troops, leaving only a few behind to train Iraqi security forces to defend their own country.
Gulf War and Desert Storm
In August 1990, President Bush deployed over 500,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. In January 1991, a joint resolution was passed in Congress to retroactively authorize the deployment of troops to Iraq. Bernie voted against this congressional authorization, as did 179 Democrats and three Republicans.
What did Bernie propose to do instead of going to war?
During a speech in the House on January 17, 1991, Bernie called for economic sanctions against Iraq rather than military intervention. Bernie was concerned that the United States would become entrenched in a long term bloody conflict in the Middle East, a region already torn apart by centuries of war and factionalism.
Even back then, Bernie was worried that spending money on a war in the Gulf would contribute to America’s debt — then $3 trillion — and detract from addressing important domestic issues like healthcare, education, and jobs.
Bernie said in the speech, “[I]t is my belief that a war in the Persian Gulf now—an absolutely unnecessary war—would be a terrible mistake that this country would regret for decades to come.”
Later in the House session, Bernie expanded upon his concerns regarding the Gulf War:
“Despite the fact that virtually the entire world has been united against Saddam Hussein—a two-bit vicious dictator who illegally and brutally invaded Kuwait—the President [Bush] concluded that there was no way of resolving this conflict and achieving our goals other than waging a major war—perhaps unprecedented in the history of the world in terms of death and destruction wrought in its first day as a result of our aerial attacks. I disagree with that assessment.”
How did Bernie feel our military engagement in Iraq would affect our standing in the Middle East?
On the House floor Bernie said:
“Despite the fact that we are now aligned with such Middle Eastern dictatorships such as Syria, a terrorist dictatorship, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, feudalistic dictatorships, and Egypt, a one-party state that receives seven billion dollars in debt forgiveness to wage this war with us, I believe that in the long run, the action unleashed last night will go strongly against our interests in the Middle East. Clearly the United States and allies will win this war, but the death and destruction caused, will not, in my opinion, soon be forgotten by the Third World in general, and the poor people of the Middle East in particular. I fear very much that what we said yesterday is that war—and the enormous destructive power of our armed forces—is our preferred manner for dealing with the very complicated and terrible crises in the middle east. I fear that someday we will regret that decision, and that we are in fact laying the groundwork for more and more wars for years to come.”
How did Bernie feel about the amount of military spending in overseas conflicts?
Bernie strongly believed that the immense cost of the Gulf War would negatively impact millions of working class families and poor Americans, and urged Congress to work with the United Nations to negotiate a military withdrawal to prevent further bloodshed.
In a speech before Congress Bernie stated:
“While there is no question in my mind that the United States government and its allies will win this war, I am not at all sure that the people of this country — especially the working class people, the poor people, and the elderly will win. The two million homeless people in our country sleeping out on the sidewalks and under the bridges are not going to win this war. There will be no money available to house them. The tens of millions of Americans who cannot afford healthcare today are not going to win this war. There will be no money available for their needs. The family farmers in Vermont — who are today being driven off their land — are not going to win this war, nor will the children or the elderly, who in all probability, will see cutbacks in their social security and medicare checks in order to fund it. It is incumbent upon us to do everything in our power — now that the war has started — to prevent unnecessary bloodshed and to support our troops in the most basic way. By bringing them home alive and well. I urge my fellow members to ask the President to stop the bombing immediately, and request that the secretary general of the United Nations to go to Iraq and begin immediate negotiations for the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, and the cessation of the war. Let us do everything in our power to stop unnecessary bloodshed.”
Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom
In 2002, Bernie voted against the resolution to authorize military force against Iraq which passed 297-133 in the House, and 77 to 23 in the Senate. Bernie, and continued to speak out against the Iraq War throughout the entire engagement.
Did Bernie support the Iraq War?
No, he did not. In 2002, Bernie spoke extensively about the dangers of going to war in Iraq again. In the speech, Bernie raised concerns about the destabilizing impact of another Iraq war and warned that it might lead to a counter-insurgency:
“I have not heard any estimates of how many young American men and women might die in such a war, or how many tens of thousands of women and children in Iraq might also be killed. As a caring nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering war will cause. War must be the last recourse…..[And] who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed? And what role will the US play in an ensuing civil war that will develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the PA be exacerbated?”
Unfortunately, Bernie’s fear that the Iraq War would stoke a counter-insurgency and fuel fundamentalism in the Middle East has been realized. First with the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and then the rise and spread of ISIS.
You can watch Bernie’s speeches against the Iraq War here:
What did Bernie say about the Bush administration’s planning, execution, and understanding of the Iraq War?
In a February 2007 speech before the Senate, Bernie said:
“In my view, President Bush’s war in Iraq has been a disaster. It is a war that we have been misled into, and a war that many of us believed that we never should have gotten into in the first place. This is a war that the administration was unprepared to fight. The administration has shown very little understanding of the enemy, or the historical context, or the cultural context in which we found ourselves. Who will forget President Bush declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’ aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln when, in fact, the mission had barely begun? Who will forget Vice President Cheney telling us that the insurgency was in its last throes, just before some of the bloodiest months of the war took place? Who will ever forget those Bush advisors who predicted that the war would be a cakewalk?”
What did Bernie say about the costs of the Iraq War?
In a February 2007 address to the Senate, Bernie said:
“This war in Iraq has come at a very, very high price in so many ways. This is a war which has cost us terribly in American blood. As of today, we have lost some 3,100 brave American soldiers, twenty-three thousand more have been wounded, and tens of thousands will come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a war which, with the President’s proposed increase, will cost us some $500 billion, with the price tag going up by $8 billion every single month. This cost is going to add to the huge national debt we are already leaving to our children and grandchildren. And it is going to make it more difficult for us to fund health care, education, environmental protection, affordable housing, childcare, and the pressing needs of the middle class and working families of our country, not to mention the needs of our veterans, whose numbers are rapidly increasing as a result of this war.”
What has Bernie said now that the Iraq War has ended?
Bernie correctly predicted many of the detrimental impacts the Iraq War would cause. Indeed, at his April 2015 press conference announcing his candidacy for president, he said:
“I voted against the war in Iraq—and not only did I vote against it, I helped lead the effort. Many of the things that I said back then turned out to be true—the massive destabilization of the region.”
Bernie responded to many questions related to Iraq, military spending, and the Middle East at a town hall in Iowa.
Bernie has continued to rail against the Iraq War during his 2020 Presidential run, stating that United States foreign policy “must focus on diplomacy, not endless war.”
Bernie’s voting record on the Gulf War and the Iraq War
- Voted NO to the Gulf War – on the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. (January 1991)
- Voted NO to the Iraq War – on the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. (October 2002)
- Voted NO on declaring Iraq part of War on Terror with no exit date. (June 2006)
- Voted YES on withdrawing US troops from Iraq by March 2008. (March 2007)
- Voted NO on designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorists. (September 2007)
- Voted YES on withdrawing non-essential U.S. troops out of Iraq in 9 months. (December 2007)
Iraq War Spending Bills to Aid Veterans and Vermonters
Between 2003 and 2011, Congress tried to pass ten different bills to fund the Iraq War, one each year. Bernie voted against six of them, and voted for these four:
- 2006: Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Hurricane Recovery
- 2007: Department of Defense Appropriations Act
- 2008: Supplemental Appropriations Act
- 2011: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year
Why did Bernie vote in favor of those four bills?
First, it may help to explain why Bernie voted against the other six. The Bush administration, backed by a Republican-controlled Congress, funded the occupation of Iraq on an emergency basis to minimize congressional scrutiny, circumvent legal limits on the federal government’s debt ceiling, and to understate the true cost of the Iraq War.
The first time Bernie voted for an Iraq War spending bill was in 2006, when the bill included funding for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. The second time, in 2007, Bernie voted for the bill because he managed to insert an amendment that provided a $1 million grant to the Vermont Department of Veterans Affairs to help returning veterans cope with their health care and mental health needs upon returning home. The third time was in 2008, when the legislation incorporated a massive expansion of G.I. Bill benefits that Bernie co-sponsored — and which the Bush administration opposed — that guaranteed full scholarships to veterans, including activated National Guard troops and reservists, with three years of service, to attend any public, in-state university and expanded benefits for students at private colleges and for graduate schools. Finally, in 2011, Bernie voted for the spending bill to fund the conclusion of the Iraq War as President Obama removed U.S. troops from the country.
The Rise And Fall Of ISIS In Iraq
Most historians agree that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq as a response to the U.S. invasion in 2003. The groundwork for the resistance to U.S. meddling in the region was laid long before the invasion.
ISIS is a terrorist group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that attempted to establish an Islamic Caliphate—a group of countries under strict sharia, or Islamic, law—in the Levant region of the Middle East. Estimates at one point put their numbers anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 mostly militant Sunnis that were funded by seized oil fields and money captured from Iraqi banks and well armed with vast caches of U.S. weapons and resources that they seized from Iraq arsenals. ISIS committed suicide bombings, massacres and numerous war-crimes some of which were broadcast live by ISIS themselves or used in recruitment videos. ISIS was successful in seizing large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory. They have largely been defeated and a resurgence of al Qaeda is partially filling that power vacuum in Syria.
What has Bernie said about this?
For almost 30 years, Bernie has been warning about the destabilizing impact of military intervention in the Middle East.
In 1991, before the Gulf War, Bernie said:
“Despite the fact that we are now aligned with such Middle Eastern dictatorships such as Syria, a terrorist dictatorship, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, feudalistic dictatorships, and Egypt, a one-party state that receives seven billion dollars in debt forgiveness to wage this war with us, I believe that in the long run, the action unleashed last night will go strongly against our interests in the Middle East. Clearly the United States and allies will win this war, but the death and destruction caused, will not, in my opinion, soon be forgotten by the Third World in general, and the poor people of the Middle East in particular. I fear very much that what we said yesterday is that war—and the enormous destructive power of our armed forces—is our preferred manner for dealing with the very complicated and terrible crises in the middle east. I fear that someday we will regret that decision, and that we are in fact laying the groundwork for more and more wars for years to come.
When Bernie voted against the Iraq War, he explicitly stated his concerns about a power vacuum being created after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.
In 2002, Bernie asked, “[And] who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed? And what role will the US play in an ensuing civil war that will develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the PA be exacerbated?”
Bernie was concerned U.S. military involvement in Iraq would destabilize the region and lead to a counter-insurgency. He was right. A strong insurgency resisted the U.S. military operation until it ended in 2011. The counter insurgency was focused in several militia groups, mainly along secular lines: the Badr Brigades, the Mehdi Army, the Peshmerga, and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which later expanded into Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — abbreviated as ISIL or ISIS.
Learn From the War In Iraq
U.S. military involvement in Iraq lead to foreseeable disastrous consequences and a predictable counter-insurgency movement that expanded to terrorize the region and resulted in yet another regional conflict in Syria. We need to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan so we don’t make the same mistakes again.
According to Bernie, “the war in Iraq was, from our perspective, a disaster in terms of lost lives — 500,000 people coming home with various types of injuries and wounds, and huge [monetary] cost.”
On a similar note, Bernie vocally criticized his Republican colleagues, saying:
“Here is my nightmare, and I see it moving forward every day, you have a lot of Republicans there who apparently did not learn anything from the never-ending war in Afghanistan, learned nothing from what happened in Iraq and want us in a perpetual warfare in the Middle East. I am strongly opposed to that.”
Bernie wants to engage in a different kind of foreign policy, one that is grounded in diplomacy and negotiation rather than endless war and military interventionism.
Learn more about Bernie’s Foreign Policy views.