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Biden Tries To Clarify His Record On Iraq War During Democratic Debate

Former Vice President Joe Biden takes the stage Thursday at the third Democratic debate, which took place at Texas Southern University in Houston.
Michael Zamora NPR
Former Vice President Joe Biden takes the stage Thursday at the third Democratic debate, which took place at Texas Southern University in Houston.

More than 16 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, former Vice President Joe Biden is still struggling to explain his vote for the war and when his feelings about intervention evolved.

On Thursday night, during the third Democratic debate, which took place in Houston, Biden said he "never should have voted to give [President] Bush the authority to go in and do what he said he was going to do."

Biden, a former Delaware senator, was referring to his October 2002 vote in the U.S. Senate for the authorization to use military force against Iraq, and his comments were not prompted by a moderator's question. It was a deliberate attempt to clarify his record after recently receiving criticism for mischaracterizing his opposition to the war.


"I said something that was not meant the way I said it," Biden said, further trying to clarify himself on the debate stage. His comments were referring to remarks he made both during the last debate and in a recent NPR Politics Podcast interview, in which he said he declared his opposition to the war from the outset.

Biden went on to explain that what he meant was that he had argued from the beginning of the war that the U.S. was engaging in Iraq the wrong way: There was no plan and no support from allies.

Although Biden voted for the authorization to use military force against Iraq, he has suggested that he was misled by George W. Bush's administration. He told NPR last week that he thought the vote would be used as diplomatic leverage.

"[Bush] looked me in the eye in the Oval Office. He said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program," Biden told the NPR Politics podcast. "He got them in, and before you know it, we had shock and awe."

Bush's office denied Biden's version of events. "I'm sure it's just an innocent mistake of memory, but this recollection is flat wrong," said spokesman Freddy Ford in an email to NPR.


The Biden campaign pointed to numerous remarks from Bush at the time in which he said he hoped to go through the U.N. Security Council to avoid a military conflict with Iraq.

But regardless of whether there was outright deception or just two politicians recalling different versions of history, there is no doubt that the former vice president's position has evolved over the years, though it's unclear when and how exactly that occurred. In recent months, Biden has suggested he was a staunch critic of the war from the beginning.

He told the NPR Politics Podcast that "immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment." He made a similar claim during the second Democratic debates.

"From the moment shock and awe started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and the administration," he said.

But in multiple public remarks made after the invasion began in 2003, Biden openly supported the effort.

"Nine months ago, I voted with my colleagues to give the president of the United States of America the authority to use force, and I would vote that way again today," Biden said in a speech at the Brookings Institution on July 31, 2003. "It was a right vote then, and it'll be a correct vote today."

It wasn't until 2005, in an interview on Meet the Press, that Biden publicly said his vote was a mistake.

Tony Blinken, a senior campaign adviser to Biden who previously served as the Democratic staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Iraq War began, insisted that the former vice president was highly critical of the Bush administration's strategy and intelligence failures from the outset but that once the U.S. military was deployed, Biden supported resources for the troops.

In a statement to the Washington Post, he said in part, "Vice President Biden misspoke by saying that he declared his opposition to the war immediately. He opposed the way we went to war and the way the war was being carried out. He has for many years called his vote a mistake and takes full responsibility for it."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders voted against the Iraq War and made sure to remind Biden of that on Thursday night. "I never believed what Cheney and Bush said about Iraq," he said, pointing out that he led the opposition to the war, knowing there was bound to be massive destabilization in Iraq.

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