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Lincoln Chafee Interview: "Everyone Was Silent" On Iraq

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As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

Lincoln Chafee: "Everyone Was Silent"
The Only Republican Senator to Oppose Iraq War Authorization Speaks Out

In the fall of 2002, as the United States Senate was granting the White House authorization to go to war in Iraq, only one Republican member of that body opposed the course of action. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Rhode Island Republican, served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time that he expressed his skepticism. In his view, the administration had clearly failed to make its case to invade Iraq. Nor did he believe that the attacks on 9/11 were connected to Saddam Hussein. History, so far, has proved Chafee prescient.

In the summer of 2007, Chafee formally abandoned the Republican Party after losing his re-election run to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

In this interview with The Huffington Post, he recounts how, at the time he opposed the initial war authorization, he felt like a sheep amidst the wolves.

What was it like to be in the opposition to the Iraq War five years ago, with the drums beating loud and the majority of the public and Congress supporting the rush to war?

When the president first started talking about Iraq, it was just met with incredulity. There was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The intelligence was questionable. But there was all this fear from 9/11.

Colin Powell was the coup de grace with his testimony at the United Nations. And you heard it here in Rhode Island. People were saying, 'Well Colin Powell presented all this evidence about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam being a threat.' He sold the war for them.

The administration was just brilliant with their marketing. I still marvel at the weapons of mass destruction. It never got defined. What were the weapons they were talking about? But it worked. People believed these weapons existed. People got the feeling that the [terrorists] were going to come down the shores and onto the main streets and that we were in danger.

What was going on in the Senate at the time? Was there just too much pressure by the administration for a majority anti-war coalition?

We just got through Vietnam. And we were about to do it all again. The Democrats were abysmal. They controlled the Senate in 2002. And none of the right questions were being asked. There was a minority led by Sen. [Robert] Byrd. He was terrific. But the floor was generally silent.

How could that be?

Sept 11th had everyone angry. It was a difficult atmosphere. It was a time you needed cool heads. But we didn't have them. And then you factor in the mistake the Democrats made on the first Gulf War. They didn't want to do that again.

When you think about it, all the leaders who were contemplating running for president - Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Tom Daschle - they all voted for it. Why? They all were making a calculated personal decision and didn't want the war hanging over them.

What were your thoughts on the media's role in the run up to the war? Did they do their jobs, or were they too acquiescent to the Bush administration?

I thought The New York Times was good. The Washington Post was okay. But, for the most part, the press went along. I can remember the talk shows, Imus and the like. The only people they were interviewing were war proponents. I used to listen to Imus driving into work and I used to scream: 'Can you get one person opposed to the war?' There were 23 of us in the Senate. You couldn't talk to Barbara Boxer? Russ Feingold? Paul Wellstone?

Was there a point in time during the war where you thought it could be a success? Or did you think, from the beginning, that it was doomed to be a lost cause?

There was a moment when I said to myself, 'You were wrong.' That was a moment right after "Mission Accomplished," right after 2003... [All these regional leaders] were all in the Jordanian seaside town of Aqaba, and they were all standing there saying that with the removal of Saddam Hussein, in Iraq was going to energize the peace process for Israel and Palestine. And I said 'Wow, if this all pans out that would be amazing.' Maybe I had misjudged it after all, Paul Wellstone called it dual victories in the war on terror, the fact that we could take out Saddam and restart the peace process. But it never happened. It never panned out. From that moment on it was just a series of bad decisions and blunders. And we lost any chance for success.

So, five years later, we are still in Iraq. And it seems that, until President Bush leaves office, we will remain there. What does the U.S. need to do in order to facilitate an end to the war?

We need to have stronger efforts on peace negotiations. I also believe that the six countries that share a border with Iraq - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait - those are the key countries if we want to get this thing resolved. They share a border with Iraq. They know the Iraqis. Two of them, people say, shouldn't be at the table - Syria and Iran. But we need to make stronger efforts to get them to share responsibilities if we want to end this war.

It seems as if the war has become almost an accepted reality for the American public. We are not shocked by news of deaths. And in some voter surveys, Iraq registers as the third most important issue.

With no draft it is almost like this is somebody else's war. But when the violence spikes [they pay attention]. And Vietnam is still fresh in people's minds. Yes, the war is down on page 8 [of the paper]. But now with the economy softening, I do think that people will make the connection. They will look at all these proposals and say: 'How the heck can we afford these things.' And they will look at how much money we are spending on the war.

Will our society be divided by this war even after it ends? Will the political and social fault lines be drawn around Iraq - much like they were, in the 80s and 90s around Vietnam?

The president still gets that standing ovation by saying it is the right thing to do. Yeah, that is a different crowd from the rest of America. And it is tied into continued fear about terrorism. So, yes, the potential is there for this battle to be waged for a long time.

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