These days, Bernie Sanders doesn’t say much about the Middle East. But if you’ve heard him say nothing else on the subject, he’s probably reminded you that he—unlike a certain former secretary of state—had the foresight to vote against the Iraq War when it came before Congress back in 2002.
In fact, sometimes it seems like the only talking point on the broader Middle East Sanders feels comfortable delivering. “Not only did I vote against that war, I helped lead the opposition,” Sanders said in response to a recent debate question about fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS. “It gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared would happen the day after Saddam Hussein was overthrown [did].” It was a reminder he reiterated, to loud applause, in his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire primary.
At one level, that’s perfectly understandable. It really can’t be repeated enough that the Iraq War was the most disastrous US foreign policy decision of at least the last generation. The invasion and subsequent occupation cost thousands of US lives and trillions of US dollars, and it left anywhere from a few hundred thousand to over a million Iraqi civilians dead. It destabilized the region, exploded sectarian tensions, and led directly to the rise of ISIS.
Not to mention, of course, it was based entirely on lies.
When she was a senator from New York, Hillary Clinton didn’t just vote for that war. As Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Stephen Zunes noted recently, she proved an eager propagandist for the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in her own right. And, most perplexingly, she was still defending her vote for the war as late as 2007—years after the claims were disproved for good.
So Clinton is vulnerable on the subject, and for good reason. But on another level, she wasn’t wrong when she retorted, “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”
Maybe she just meant to burnish her own hawkish credentials. But the fact remains that whoever’s elected this year is nearly guaranteed to inherit the war on ISIS that President Obama launched back in 2014. He or she will be the fifth consecutive US president to preside over some variety of military intervention in Iraq—a dour chapter that’s already continued for at least 25 years, dating back to the Gulf War. (And that’s not even counting the US role in the bloody Iran-Iraq war before that.)