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Graham: I Never Wavered In My Belief That The War Was Wrong

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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.

From his perch as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the fall of 2002, former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) was privy to a wide range of viewpoints about a possible invasion of Iraq. And what he decided, after doing his homework, was that war simply didn't make sense. Not only did Iraq pose a negligible threat, he concluded, but the U.S. would be diverting resources from the more important front in Afghanistan. So he voted no on the president's request for authorization of the use of military force, just one of 23 Senators to do so. Now out of Congress, Graham reflects on that time period and cautions: if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

How did you grow convinced that the Iraq War was a bad idea?

I had, somewhat by accident, found out that the reality that Iraq was a trade-off for Afghanistan. I visited Central Command in February 2002, met with Tommy Franks and he told me that they were reducing their capabilities in Afghanistan in order to ship personnel and equipment to get ready for war in Iraq. The message was that we weren't really able to fight two battles concurrently. I then raised the question, which was the more important to U.S. interests: Iraq or Afghanistan?

I thought clearly it was Afghanistan. We asked for an NIE to support this. We got one and it was very squishy about what Iraq was doing, but the administration continued to heighten the drumbeats for war based on weapons of mass destruction. I just felt we were being manipulated and that the result was going to distract us from where our real enemies were.

Why didn't the other members of Senators do this type of homework?

I don't know you have to ask the people who made the decision who felt it was not necessary to have that piece of information to come to a conclusion. I think a lot of people, I guess, voted yes based on the old tradition that the president tells the truth. You can rely on what the president says and the president was saying we were facing an enormous threat that required our military.

Did you ever, at any point, think the war could be pulled off, that the U.S. was going to succeed?

I'm afraid I never wavered from my belief that this was a distraction that was going to come to a bad end in Iraq and an even worse end in Afghanistan.

What are your thoughts on the surge, more than a year in? Has it not been successful? Violence is down and the public seems more supportive of the war.

It depends on how you define success. War is an extension of politics. You don't fight a war independent of political objectives. And the political objectives of the surge were to create an environment in which the domestic politicians of Iraq could come together, make some tough decisions, help reunify the country, and be able to manage their affairs without the forever presence of 150,000 or more U.S. troops. By that standard, I don't think it has been a success. If we did in fact create an opening for political reconciliation, and I think our troops have preformed brilliantly, but their efforts were not utilized effectively by the Iraqi politicos.

Should the United States have a long-term military presence in Iraq? After all, we have a vested interest in the region and a national security interest in combating terrorism.

Iraq was not the hub of terrorist activity [before we invaded]. It was hardly even a participant in the war on terror, in part because [Osama] bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had a very open animosity if not hatred for each other. So we created the environment in which Iraq became a place where terrorists came to train and get ready for the next battle, much like Afghanistan itself was the training ground for terrorist in the 1980s war against Russia. I'm not very impressed with what a large U.S. presence in Iraq could contribute to our national security.

Can something like the Iraq War happen again? Can the U.S. Senate be whipped up by a war-bent administration to launch another preemptive or ill-thought invasion?
Well this wasn't the first time it happened.... [Remember] the vote for Gulf of Tonkin resolution?

We assume there was a continuity of people who experienced 2002 and saw the consequences of not challenging the president. But the 'we' that were there in 2002, probably a third or more of the members of the Senate who were there, aren't there any more, including myself. And by the next time we face this is it is likely there will be very few. One of the things [Senator] Bob Byrd brings to the Senate, having been there for so long, is a sense of history. And he uses it to make judgments today.