WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) doesn’t have to think very hard to remember what happened after he visited Iraq in 2002, before Congress voted for a war to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
“I became ‘Baghdad Jim,’” McDermott said this week. “That was during a campaign year. People came up on my lawn and wrote ‘Baghdad Jim’ on my yard signs.”
What McDermott had done to earn that Jane Fonda-like sobriquet was to repeat, during an interview from Iraq’s capital with ABC News’ George Stephanopolous, his opinion that President George W. Bush’s administration was dummying up the case for war.
"I think the president would mislead the American people,” McDermott said, sparking a firestorm of criticism back home, where he was labeled “disgraceful” and accused of “slander” by war-supporting pundits.
Of course, in one of history’s more humbling lessons, McDermott turned out to be right -- not just about the quality of the case being made for war, but also about the potentially destabilizing impact of a poorly considered military intervention.
Americans responded to the failures, in part, by electing President Barack Obama, who argued for a different, more diplomatic approach to global challenges.
Yet, more than 13 years after the Bush White House and Congress chose their ill-fated course, many of those same leaders are again insisting on a more bellicose approach, arguing against Obama’s diplomatic endeavors in Iran, and taking steps that may undermine nuclear negotiations.
McDermott remembers well the arguments made by the same people back then.
“There is a principle of communication which is very well known, and has been documented in a variety of different ways. But it comes down to, if you can make people afraid, you can make them do anything,” McDermott said. “And these warmongers are fearmongers, and they are creating as much fear in the American people as possible.”
Indeed, a review of the comments from 2002 and 2003 by leaders who still hold office finds a surfeit of fear and fallacy, and a comparison with today's rhetoric finds many of the same people making similar cases with exactly the same certitude they displayed before being proven wrong about Iraq.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), current chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, complained in 2002 that a policy of “hoping Hussein can be contained” had allowed Iraq to become “one giant WMD factory” that threatened the entire Middle East and America.
Last month, Thornberry declared the administration’s potential nuclear deal was "ratifying Iran as a threshold nuclear power.” That, he said, “will breed instability and increase security competition in both the Middle East and the wider geopolitical order. This must not be allowed to happen.”
One of the most credible, effective proponents of war in 2002 was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former Vietnam prisoner of war who lost to President George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries.
McCain argued that continuing a policy of deterrence against Iraq “would condemn Saddam's neighbors to perpetual instability. And once Iraq's nuclear ambitions are realized, no serious person could expect the Iraqi threat to diminish.”
He also confidently predicted: “I am very certain that this military engagement will not be very difficult.”
McCain’s longtime ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), then a member of the House, declared that attacking Iraq was “long overdue” and that “when the smoke clears, the Iraqi people will taste freedom for the first time in decades.”
“Evil is about to face the forces of good,” Graham added. “One more domino will soon fall in the war on terrorism.”
Like Thornberry and numerous other hawks, Graham and McCain are again expressing doubts about diplomacy. “Regardless of the outcome, Iran’s threat to regional security and stability endures,” they said in a joint statement about the administration’s framework for an agreement. “Any hope that a nuclear deal will lead Iran to abandon its decades-old pursuit of regional dominance through violence and terror is simply delusional. The Obama Administration’s failure to recognize and counter this threat has only served to expand Iranian influence.”
McCain and Graham are hardly unique. Pick just about any lawmaker who voted for the war in 2002, and they are likely to be making arguments of a similar tenor now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) argued strongly for a pre-emptive approach against Saddam, saying then that the risks of the more diplomatic strategy were “simply unacceptable.”
This month, McConnell said in a statement: "To the detriment of international security -- specifically regarding the security of the United States, Israel and other allies, as well as preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East -- the Obama administration has always approached the goal of these negotiations as reaching the best deal that is acceptable to Iran, rather than what should be our national goal: ending Iran's nuclear program."
Democrats who waded into the war waters in 2002 seem more chastened, but some of them also are edging toward their old hawkish stances.
One, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked in 2002, “How long can we leave Hussein alone before we need to act?” and predicted the war would be “somewhat easier than” the previous Gulf war. He has alarmed progressives by backing a bill that would require speedy congressional approval of any Iran agreement before any of the deal could go into effect. Critics of the bill say it hinders chances for a final deal, making military conflict more likely.
Schumer had nothing positive to say about the framework, releasing only a short statement after it was announced that praised negotiators for working hard. “Their announcement deserves careful, rigorous and deliberate analysis. I’ll be giving the framework a very careful look,” he said, then later endorsed the review bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), which is expected to be debated Tuesday in his Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A spokesman for Schumer said his support for Corker's bill simply affirms support for congressional review, and says nothing about backing or opposing a nuclear deal.
For Jim McDermott, who was pilloried when he was right, it’s a case of deja vu all over again, especially when he hears Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) suggest the United States could carry out a few days of bombing to take care of Iran, or when one of the lead architects of the Iraq War, former Vice President Dick Cheney, says the Iran talks convince him that Obama is “the worst president we ever had.”
“My response to that would be Dick Cheney is the worst president we ever had,” McDermott told HuffPost.
“That kind of hyperbole is just over the top,” McDermott added, referring to Cheney’s charges that Obama was handing nuclear weapons to “the premiere sponsor of state terrorism in the world,” as well as Cheney’s charge that “I can't think of a more terrible burden to leave the next president than what Obama is creating here."
“There’s just no basis for that kind of stuff at all, except in the minds of somebody who wants to create the image of fear lurking outside the back door," McDermott said. "And if we don’t go out there and kill everybody in sight, well, then we’re going to have somebody break into our house.”
The invective leveled at Obama for attempting to forge a tenuous bond of trust with Iran also reminds McDermott of his trip to Iraq before the war, when he felt like he got some pretty good advice from Iraqis.
“They said, 'We can’t oppose you. You’re going to attack us. We know that. We just know. We’ll have to survive the initial attack, but when you get on the ground, then you’ll find out who has what power,’” McDermott recalled. “Shock and awe -- that worked for about 60 days, and then we had 14 years of what we got now. Fourteen going on 30."
He had some advice for the hawks limbering up their wings for a new battle.
“If we launch off into another one in Iran, we simply are out of our political minds. We’re just not making sense,” McDermott said. “We have the biggest military in the world, $660 billion, and we’re fighting on every floor, and we don’t have control of anything. We thought we’d won Iraq, we backed out, and now we’re back in.”
Regarding Iran, McDermott noted that there are decades of history that give Iran reason to mistrust America, including the CIA’s overthrow of democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, which led to decades of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's repressive regime.
“Nobody remembers what we did to those people, but they remember,” McDermott said. “They haven’t forgotten what we did by putting the shah in, and what that did to Iran and its national treasure.
“You listen to a guy like Cheney and you say yourself, 'Man, have you ever read a book?'” McDermott said, suggesting the hawks might benefit by looking past raw fear and ideology, and taking a longer view. “When you look at the situation, you just say to yourself, they’re not thinking clearly about what’s going on here.”
Jesse Rifkin contributed reporting.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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