War opponents say Sen. Hillary Clinton is misleading in her explanation about why she voted in 2003 against a bill that would have stalled America's invasion of Iraq.
During Thursday night's debate, the New York Democrat was asked why, if she did not believe the President was insistent on war, she didn't simply vote for a resolution that would have asked the United Nations to approve authorization of force against Saddam Hussein. Clinton responded that such a resolution -- which was sponsored by Michigan Senator Carl Levin -- would have made the president's authority "subordinate" to the United Nations.
"I have the greatest respect for my friend and colleague, Senator Levin," she said. "The way that amendment was drafted suggested that the United States would subordinate whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council. I don't think that was a good precedent. Therefore, I voted against it."
This, war opponents say, is a stretch. Indeed, the Levin amendment - which was defeated by a vote of 24 to 75 - allowed the government to pursue an invasion of Iraq even if the United Nations voted against such a course of action. Congress, the bill read, should "not adjourn" before it "promptly considers proposals related to Iraq if the United Nations fails to adopt such a resolution."
Levin himself said as much in an October speech on the Senate floor. "My resolution affirms that, under international law and the U.N. Charter, the United States has at all times the inherent right to use military force in self-defense, affirming the fact that there is no U.N. veto over U.S. military action," he said.
Asked on Friday to respond to the Levin quote, Phil Singer, a spokesperson for the Senator sent a quote from Sen. Russ Feingold warning that the Levin amendment would give the United Nations "Congress's proxy in deciding whether or not to send American men and women into combat." Feingold, a prominent war critic, voted against the measure as well.
Meanwhile, aides to Levin declined to elaborate on the statement Clinton made during Thursday night's debate, directing attention instead to remarks made during the pre-war run up. But, in an article by Al Hunt, a spokesman for the senator reaffirmed that the resolution was not in any way a restriction on executive power.
In interviews on Friday, war opponents echoed this claim. At the time of the invasion, they note, there were tremendous political pressures to support the war (especially for Senate candidates and those with White House aspirations). But the Levin amendment was hardly the cause celebre of the pacifist or pro-'global government' crowd.
"This was not just a vote about Saddam Hussein. It was about the United Nations and international support," said former Congressman Tom Andrews, who now heads Win Without War. "It did not, in any way, impede or impose on the sovereignty of the United States."
Added John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World. "It basically said we should go to the United Nations and get approval as the first George Bush did... Levin was correct and Hillary Clinton is incorrect in what she said last night. It would not have hamstrung the United States. And, in fact, most people now would have wished the President were hamstrung... Hilary's comment would have been relevant only if she believed the first George Bush was wrong to get UN approval and international support."
In an op-ed written well after the fact, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the only Republican Senator to oppose the war, described the amendment in much the same frame.
Senator Levin's amendment called for United Nations approval before force could be authorized. It was unambiguous and compatible with international law. Acutely cognizant of the dangers of the time, and the reality that diplomatic options could at some point be exhausted, Senator Levin wrote an amendment that was nimble: it affirmed that Congress would stand at the ready to reconsider the use of force if, in the judgment of the president, a United Nations resolution was not "promptly adopted" or enforced. Ceding no rights or sovereignty to an international body, the amendment explicitly avowed America's right to defend itself if threatened.
Last night, Senator Clinton was not asked a follow up to the question about the Levin amendment. Bush she repeated a statement she has repeatedly made on the campaign trail. "If I had known then what I know now," she declared, "I never would have given President Bush the authority. It was a sincere vote based on my assessment at the time and what I believed he would do with the authority he was given."