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Biden's Record On Iraq Is More Complicated Than How He Tells It


How did presidential candidate Joe Biden really approach the war in Iraq? He's one of many officeholders who face that question. And unlike some, Biden has a vote to explain, a vote to authorize the use of force. He tried to explain that vote this week on NPR. And our Don Gonyea now checks the explanation.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's the fall of 2002, just a year after Sept. 11 and just before midterm elections. President Bush was pushing Congress to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. Senator Joe Biden would vote yes, a decision made after many White House meetings, he explained on NPR's Politics Podcast this week.


JOE BIDEN: I got a commitment from President Bush he was not going to go to war in Iraq. He 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...

GONYEA: Biden says he did not vote for war but for diplomacy and to give the president leverage. But then, just months later, in March of 2003...


GEORGE W. BUSH: At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

GONYEA: This week, Biden recalled his reaction to the start of the war.


BIDEN: Immediately - the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.

GONYEA: But a spokesman for former President Bush says Biden's memory of his White House meetings is, quote, "flat wrong." He then referred us to Bush's post-White House book "Decision Points." Bush reads the key passage in the audio version.


BUSH: Some members of Congress would later claim they were not voting to authorize war but only to continue diplomacy. They must not have read the resolution. Its language was unmistakable.

GONYEA: So it's not clear if it was deception or a misunderstanding or just both men remembering the moment differently to suit their needs. Biden's position has clearly evolved, though. Here he is on the Senate floor in the fall of 2002 before the war but in support of that use of force resolution.


BIDEN: I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it's a march to peace and security. I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur.

GONYEA: Then there's this from July of 2003, four months after the war began. He's looking back at his "yes" vote.


BIDEN: And I would vote that way again today. It was a right vote then, and it'd be a correct vote today.

GONYEA: Not exactly immediately opposed to the war there. Biden was, though, publicly critical of poor planning and bad strategy in Iraq. But a top foreign policy adviser to Biden at the time said the senator was also committed to fully backing the troops and their effort. It was a tricky line to walk. Then in 2005, with the war going badly, Biden said that his vote was a mistake.

In this 2020 campaign, Iraq has not been a big topic. But it came up at a debate this summer where Bernie Sanders was ready with this.


BERNIE SANDERS: One of the differences that Joe and I have in our record is Joe voted for that war. I helped lead the opposition to that war, which is a total disaster.

GONYEA: And while in 2008, Hillary Clinton's campaign struggled against Barack Obama because of her "yes" vote to authorize force, these days, it's mostly absent from the list of issues voters say are vital.

LEE MIRINGOFF: The vote on Iraq is not the thing that people are going to be as hot and bothered by.

GONYEA: That's Lee Miringoff of Marist College, which conducts polling for NPR. But he says Iraq can still be problematic for Biden if it fits a pattern of the candidate getting his facts wrong.

MIRINGOFF: Yes, I think one is the mixing-up of facts. Two is the fact that he's just relitigating things that are so yesterday. Being precise and talking about the future would be much better than being a little loose with the facts and talking about the past.

GONYEA: And in a campaign that's so much about the past versus the future, Biden's challenge is to make his candidacy about the future after so many decades in Washington.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.