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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 20, 2019

Seth Moulton partly right on Biden not admitting he was wrong on the Iraq War

Joe Biden’s vote as a senator to authorize the use of force against Iraq might have come over 16 years ago, but his critics, and his primary opponents, don’t want the public to forget.

As soon as he announced in late April, a progressive Democratic group dinged him for "voting for the Iraq War." We found the group’s claim was basically accurate, but needed some context.

In early June, presidential candidate Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., took Biden to task again — this time after Biden flipped his position on the Hyde Amendment, a provision that bars Washington from spending federal money to pay for abortions.

"Bravo to @JoeBiden for doing the right thing and reversing his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment," Moulton, a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, wrote in a June 7 tweet. "It takes courage to admit when you're wrong, especially when those decisions affect millions of people. Now do the Iraq War."

Moulton’s tweet is based on a faulty premise. Moulton says that Biden admitted he was wrong about the Hyde Amendment. He didn’t. He said he changed his stance due to a change in circumstances.

As for Biden’s vote for a resolution that cleared the way for the Iraq War, he called it a mistake, but without admitting he was wrong.

We took a close look at his words on both topics. The ways Biden approached his shift on these two issues have more in common with one another than Moulton's tweet suggests.

The 2002 march to war

By the fall of 2002, the drum beat from President George W. Bush’s administration on Iraq President Saddam Hussein and his nation’s purported weapons programs left little doubt that military action was imminent. Senate Democrats split — 29 in favor and 21 against — over whether to approve a resolution that would give Bush a free hand to launch an attack.

Political scientist John Pitney at Claremont McKenna College said that Biden saw his vote for the resolution as making war less likely.

"Biden explained the authorization to use military force as a way to compel Iraq to abandon WMDs," Pitney said. "He even said, ‘I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur.’"

In the late hours of Oct. 11, 2002, Biden justified his vote by amplifying Bush’s own words about avoiding war.

"He said that quote, ‘war is neither imminent nor inevitable’," Biden said. "And that he desired to lead the world and, if war was necessary, it would be with allies at our side."

Biden said the resolution wasn’t perfect, but it leaned toward working with the international community to get Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions.

The war started in March 2003. In 2004, Biden reflected on the vote he had cast.

"A year and a half ago, I voted to give President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, Biden wrote in an op-ed. "I still believe my vote was just — but the president's use of that authority was unwise in ways I never imagined."

By late 2005, the Iraq operation had unravelled. The weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found. Biden was asked on NBC’s "Meet the Press" in November of that year if he thought his vote was a mistake.

"It was a mistake," Biden said on the show. "It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly."

Biden continued: "We gave the president the authority to unite the world to isolate Saddam. And the fact of the matter is we went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan."

Biden’s Iraq War vote dogged him when he ran for the nomination in 2008, and he stuck to the same message.

Interviewed again on "Meet the Press" in 2007, Biden characterized his "mistake" less as a failure of his own judgment than as a failure of the Bush administration.

"I regret having believed that this administration had any competence," Biden said. "It is the most incompetent administration I’ve ever — if I’d known they were going to misuse the authority we gave them the way they did, if I’d known that they were going to, once they used it, be so incompetent in the using of it, I would have never ever, ever given them the authority."

Hyde Amendment reversal

Moulton spokesman Matt Corridoni told us that while Biden might have expressed regret, his words were "not very comprehensive." And Corridoni said there’s the issue of timing.

"He hasn't addressed it yet as a 2020 candidate like he has Hyde," Corridoni said.

With the Hyde Amendment, Biden justified his shift on the grounds that access to abortion is under threat. He pointed to efforts to shutter Planned Parenthood clinics and limits tied to the Affordable Care Act.

"We now see so many Republican governors denying health care to millions of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans by refusing even Medicaid expansion," Biden said. "I can't justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to exercise their constitutionally protected right."

Biden painted his shift as the product of compassion and pragmatism, not contrition. It was about the states’ moves to restrict access.

"I make no apologies in my last position," he said. "I don't want to mislead you. If in fact, it (abortion service) was still available, I think, just as I've never attempted to impose my views on anyone else as to when life begins, I have never attempted to impose my view on who should pay for it."

"But folks, times have changed," Biden added.

Our ruling

Moulton said Biden hasn’t admitted he was wrong on the Iraq War. And for Moulton, that was in stark contrast to Biden’s headline-making reversal on the Hyde Amendment.

It is fair to say that Biden never said that it was wrong to go into Iraq under any circumstances. Rather, he expressed regret for having thought that Bush would wisely use the authority he had been given.

We leave it to others to decide if that is sufficient regret. But if Moulton saw that as different from how Biden talked about the Hyde Amendment, we find those differences slight.

In both cases, Biden cast his past actions as based on certain expectations or conditions that weren’t met. He had just as many caveats when talking about his shift on the Hyde Amendment as he did about his Iraq War vote. And Biden pointedly never apologized for his past stance on Hyde.

Biden never voiced contrition about the vote that cleared the way to war. But overall, we find that while Moulton’s statement is partially accurate, it leaves out important details.

That’s our definition of Half True.

Editor's Note, June 20, 2019, 1:13 p.m.: This story replaces an earlier version that was initally published at 12:06 p.m. in error. The ruling remains the same and the changes represented here were made for purposes of clarity.

Our Sources

Seth Moulton, tweet, June 7, 2019

C-SPAN, Biden's Floor Speech on Iraq War, Oct. 10, 2002

YouTube, Joe Biden on 2002 Iraq War Vote, Oct. 10, 2007

The New Republic, Fires Next Time, June 27, 2004

NBC News, "Meet the Press": Joe Biden, Nov. 27, 2005

NBC News, "Meet the Press": Joe Biden, April 29, 2007

The Bulletin's Frontrunner, Democrats Say Administration May Have Overstated Threat From Iraq's WMDs, May 27, 2003 (via Nexis)

National Press Club, Senator Biden delivers remarks on U.S. foreign policy, Sept. 9, 2003 (via Nexis)

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearing on Iraq transition, April 20, 2004 (via Nexis)

Democratic National Convention, Senator Biden delivers remarks, July 29, 2004 (via Nexis)

Dallas Morning News, Bush 'tricked' Americans into going to war, Biden charges, Nov. 14, 2005 (via Nexis)

Foreign Policy in Focus, Biden, Iraq, and Obama’s Betrayal, Aug. 24, 2019

Bloomberg, "Tic-Toc: Biden flips stance on Hyde amendment", June 6, 2019

New York Times, Joe Biden Denounces Hyde Amendment, Reversing His Position, June 6, 2019

Email interview, John Pitney, professor of political science, Claremont McKenna College, June 11, 2019

Email interview, Matt Corridoni, spokesman, Moulton for President, June 7, 2019

Email interview, Andrew Bates, spokesman, Biden for President, June 11, 2019


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