Bernie Sanders on Iraq

Iraq and the United States have had a complicated relationship for over a quarter-century. There are three important points that highlight Bernie’s record on foreign policy and national security with regards to Iraq:

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, and Hussein was a powerful ally to the United States for over a decade. However, when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990, that alliance dissolved, and Hussein was promptly denounced by America. Nearly every prominent nation in the international community including members of the United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion.

Almost immediately, the U.S. joined an international coalition of 15 combatant-countries aided by 24 non-combatant nations to free Kuwait and defend Saudi Arabia, which borders both Iraq and Kuwait. This conflict, now known as as the The Gulf War, ended in February 1991.

After several years of economic sanctions, in October 1998, the U.S. made it its official goal to remove the Hussein regime by enacting the Iraq Liberation Act. In March 2003, under President George W. Bush, the United States launched an invasion into the Basra province of Iraq. According to Bush, 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,” though it was later revealed that no weapons of mass destruction existed, and that the alleged ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda were fabricated. This war lasted nine years, and in December 2011, under current President Barack Obama, the vast majority of the U.S. troops were withdrawn, leaving only a few behind to train Iraqi security forces to defend their own country.

Gulf War and Desert Storm

In August 1990, President George H.W. Bush (i.e. the first Bush president) deployed over 500,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. In January 1991, he requested a congressional joint resolution to retroactively authorize the deployment of troops. Then-congressman Bernie voted against this congressional authorization, along with 179 Democrats and three Republicans. (Bernie was the only independent in the House of Representatives at that time.)

What did Bernie propose to do instead?

On January 17, 1991, Bernie addressed the House, and called for economic sanctions against Iraq rather than military intervention in the Persian Gulf. Bernie was also concerned America would entrench itself in a bloody conflict in the Middle East, a region already torn apart by centuries of war and factionalism. Even back then, Bernie was worried by how spending on a war in the Gulf would contribute to America’s debt then $3 trillion and detract from addressing domestic issues like healthcare, education, and jobs.

Overall, Bernie said, “[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.” Watch his address here:

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?

In another speech before Congress during the same January 1991 debates, 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 spending an immense amount of money overseas would negatively affect the millions of Americans in need within our borders, and urged Congress to work with the United Nations to negotiate a withdrawal and prevent further bloodshed. Again 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, as a part of the build-up to the 2003 invasion, the resolution to authorize military force against Iraq was passed by a count of 297-133 in the House, and 77 to 23 in the Senate. Bernie voted against it, and continued to speak out against it throughout the entire engagement.

What are Bernie’s thoughts on the Bush administration’s planning, execution, and understanding of the war in Iraq?

In a speech before the Senate in February 2007, 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 are some of the costs of this war in Bernie’s mind?

Also 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.”

Did Bernie support the Invasion of Iraq like many other members of Congress?

No, he did not. In 2002, as a House Representative, Bernie spoke extensively about the dangers of going to war in Iraq again, and warned about the destabilizing impact such a war would cause and how 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 re-engagement in Iraq would stoke counter-insurgency and fundamentalism in the Middle East has been realized. First with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and now with the rise and spread of ISIS. (Read about Bernie’s position on ISIS here.)

What has Bernie said now that the war has been over for a few years?

Bernie has been clear that he believes he correctly predicted many of the detrimental impacts war would have. Indeed, at the press conference announcing his presidential candidacy in April 2015, he called his record on Iraq out:

“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.”

What’s Bernie’s full voting record on these wars?

  • Voted NO on the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. (January 1991)
  • Voted NO 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 redeploying US troops out of Iraq by March 2008. (March 2007)
  • Voted NO on designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorists. (September 2007)
  • Voted YES on redeploying 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, the United States Congress tried to pass ten different bills to fund the Iraq War, one per year. Bernie voted against six, and voted for these four:

Why did Bernie vote in favor of those four bills?

First, it may help to explain why he had voted against the other six. The Bush administration, backed by a Republican-controlled Congress, made a habit of funding its occupation of Iraq on an emergency basis in order to minimize congressional scrutiny, circumvent legal limits on the federal government’s debt ceiling, and understate the true cost of the 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, he did so because he managed to insert an amendment into the bill giving a $1 million grant to the Vermont Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) to help returning veterans cope with their health care and mental health needs upon returning home. The third time was when the 2008 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 attending any public, in-state university and expanded benefits for students at private colleges and for graduate schools. Finally, in 2011, he voted for another spending bill, with the understanding that it would fund the conclusion to the war in Iraq as President Obama removed U.S. troops from the country.

Well, where are we now, and where does Bernie stand on the current situation in Iraq and the Middle East region?

In order to better understand American relations in the Middle East and how the U.S.’ various military engagements and occupations have affected the region, it’s important that you read up on the emergence of ISIS, and where Bernie stands with regards to that terrorist organization. Head over to the ISIS issue page for a deep-dive.