Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Bill Clinton Said WHAT??

O.K., I know that the context was his criticism of Republican-backed tax cuts during time of war–the only time in our history as a nation when we have financed a war by borrowing instead of taxation.  But I still could hardly believe my ears yesterday when former U.S. President Bill Clinton (D-AR), campaigning on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), a leading Democratic candidate for U.S. President, stated boldly that he “opposed [the invasion of] Iraq from the beginning!” Really, Bill?  Then why didn’t you advise Hillary not to vote to authorize the war?  I don’t recall Bill Clinton speaking out against the war in ’02 or early ’03 when it might have made a difference.  In fact, having just “Googled” this topic, I am pretty sure he did no such thing.

I can’t stand these attempts by politicians to re-write history in their favor–whether Republicans or Democrats do it.  I am very angry about this remark by Bill Clinton–angrier than I have been at him since he bombed Kosovo to distract the public from the Lewinsky scandal or when he caved to GOP pressure and signed into law a “welfare reform” law that did nothing to solve the problem of poverty, but was, instead, draconian in its effects on the poor–especially poor children!! Why am I so angry? Because opposing a war takes more than thinking privately that it is a bad idea–it requires speaking out and that takes courage and usually involves consequences:

  • Col. Scott Ritter, the highly decorated former U.S. Marine, who was the Chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq during the 1990s, had that kind of courage. He spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, arguing that Iraq was no longer a military threat and had little if any WMDs left.  Ritter paid a price: having his name smeared on every news show in the U.S., with blowhards like Sean Hannity claiming that he had been paid off by Saddam Hussein and others claiming that Ritter should have his medals revoked!
  • Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to the first Pres. Bush (George H. W. Bush), wrote an article in the 15 Aug. edition of the Wall Street Journal called “Don’t Attack Saddam!” which argued that containment was working and the invasion would distract from fighting terrorism and from the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the real key to a stable Middle East. 
  • Some retired military officers and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued against the invasion, including, most prominently, Gen. Wesley Clark and Gen. Anthony Zinni.
  • Several career diplomats with years of experience in Middle East Affairs resigned in protest over the coming invasion of Iraq–including many who supported Gulf War I.
  • Ray McGovern, retired CIA analyst who now works for the publishing arm of the Church of the Savior, spoke out, forming VIPS: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and exposing the holes in the Bush admin.’s case for war. In 2004, McGovern had a public run-in with Donald Rumsfeld, charging him with war crimes.
  • Former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had once faced down Saddam Hussein face-to-face, and was decorated by the first Pres. Bush (George H. W. Bush) for his role in getting all Americans out of Iraq before Gulf War I, opposed this war and exposed part of the lies on which it was based–and the Bush admin. retaliated by “outing” his wife, Valerie Plame, as a deep cover CIA agent, ruining her career and putting lives at risk. 
  • Social justice advocate Medea Benjamin, put her business at Equal Exchange on hold to found CODE PINK: Women for Peace. She opposed the war and has been repeatedly jailed for it.
  • Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) was almost alone in the Senate in 2002 in calling for a real debate and careful hearings before rushing any kind of authorization for war. He was joined by a few including Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Edward Kennedy.  Byrd’s call for vigorous hearings and debate and defense of the Constitutional role of Congress in declaring war (or not)  was ignored or ridiculed.
  • Both the present Pope (Benedict XVI) and the previous Pope (John Paul II), spoke out against the Iraq invasion, with the ailing John Paul even sending the Vatican papal nuncio to meet with Bush in an attempt to stop the invasion.
  • Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners led a major ecumenical Christian effort to find ways to deal with any possible threat that Saddam might pose without war–and when he could get no audience for his plan in the White House, met with British PM Tony Blair to plead the case.
  • Other religious leaders such as Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Centre, spoke out against the war.  I drafted the open letter against the war by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  Members from Christian Peacemaker Teams and other faith-based groups tried to be human shields against the invasion–and several were kidnapped by insurgents and one lost his life because of this. 
  • In Feb. 2003, 10 million worldwide, 1 million in New York City alone, marched in the streets to stop the war. I was in New York. Bill Clinton was not.  Any peace rally would gladly have let him speak–he could have made a difference.  But he remained silent. 
  • Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks made one remark against the impending war in a London concert and the band went overnight from the hottest country band in the world to having their CDs publicly burned and radio stations refusing to play their music–and being burned in effigy.  I don’t recall Bill Clinton, supposedly a longtime fan, speaking out in their defense. Even G.W. Bush defended their right to free speech, but Bill Clinton was silent!
  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) spoke out, as did former Pres. Jimmy Carter and former VP Al Gore. So did Howard Dean, Barack Obama (then a state senator in Illinois), and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM). Bill Clinton was silent.
  • The list might be expanded, but it is so easy to name those in public life who spoke out BECAUSE THEY WERE SO FEW! Soon we had the stupidity of renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries” because French Pres. Chirac opposed the invasion! In that kind of atmosphere, most prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton, kept quiet and showed zero moral leadership. To say otherwise now is a lie of incredible proportions–like all those white guys who claim to have “marched with Dr. King” now when they actually were silent. (An African-American friend of mine says he has yet to find a white Southerner of the proper age who admits to having been a segregationist at the time. Surely they didn’t all die already? Surely many changed their minds–and simply are too afraid to admit it, now.) This Clintonian lie is as large as “I did not have sex with that woman”–and, as far as the public good is concerned (rather than just the consequences to Clinton’s marriage or soul), this lie is far worse.

People paid various prices for opposing the invasion of Iraq “from the beginning,” Mr. Clinton!  My family received anonymous death threats for our letters to the editor opposing the war. My wife was stalked and had to remove an anti-war bumper sticker for 6 months because of physical danger for opposing this war.  My daughters were ostracized in school.  The majority of the public did not turn against this war until late 2004 or early 2005.  Before that it was lonely and hard to oppose this war. It took courage–courage that was sadly lacking in Bill Clinton if he truly was against it “from the beginning.” 

This is Bill Clinton’s pattern. He “opposed” the Vietnam War as a college student. But did he resist the draft and risk jail or exile as did so many? No, he used political connections (much like George W. Bush did!) to be passed over and then waited until he was safe at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship before speaking out against the war. He did this, he told us back in the ’90s, in order to preserve his future political viability. So, his convictions have never cost him anything.  Real opponents of war–whether all wars or particular ones–risk something. Bill Clinton, instead, plays it safe. So, did Hillary vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq because she believed the case for war, or to strengthen Bush’s negotiating hand at the UN (as she claims)–or because she, like so many spineless Dems, believed the GOP when it said the war would be short and didn’t want to be seen as “soft on defense?” Did Bill Clinton say to her “Honey, this invasion is the wrong way to promote regime change in Iraq or Middle East Democracy, but if you ever plan on being president you better vote for it?”  Was Bill rewriting history yesterday in order to shore up Hillary’s support with peace folk and progressives among Democrats? If so, I hope it backfires.

I am so angry and disgusted I could spit.  How many lives of U.S. soldiers could have been saved if someone of Bill Clinton’s stature had really “opposed the war from the beginning?”  How many lives of Iraqis?  Would we have been spared Abu Ghraib, the Gitmo gulag, and much else?  True, Bill Clinton did not create these evils–Bush and cronies did.  But Bill Clinton’s silence is a guilty silence–a silence much like that of the “good Germans” who let the Holocaust take place (if not–yet–on that scale).  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that for evil to triumph all that was required was for good people to do nothing. 

I am not angry at those people who were truly taken in by the Bush phoney case and who later repented–like former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), for instance.  As a friend of mine who moved from Republican to Democrat over these issues said, “It is truly hard to believe that your government could lie to you so thoroughly.” But Clinton did not say that he was taken in by Bush’s phoney case. He said he opposed the invasion of Iraq “from the beginning.” To have opposed but said nothing is an act of moral cowardice of tremendous proportions. If his wife is equally guilty, then she is nearly as unworthy of the office of president as the current occupant.

Let’s demand some basic honesty and moral courage in our leaders–or get new ones.

November 29, 2007 - Posted by | Iraq, peace, taxes, U.S. politics


  1. Everything you say here is right on target. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams also publicly opposed the war before it ever started, as did the National Council of Churches.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | November 29, 2007

  2. Reading this, I remember a conversation I had with a conservative friend of mine as it became more and more clear that we were headed to war. At that time I was neither in favor of nor totally opposed to the war. As a philosophy student and a proponent of Just War theory (it will probably not surprise you, Michael, to learn that of late I’ve been rethinking Just War, and am much closer to being a pacifist than I was back then) I’d just written a paper outlining the conditions that I felt would have to be met for the by then apparently inevitable invasion of Iraq to be just.

    My point in our argument was this: I didn’t think that the Bush administration had either properly identified the conditions under which their proposed war would be just, nor sufficiently demonstrated that the conditions they had identified for the justness of this war had been met. I expressed real doubt about claims that had been made about WMDs, and for that I was laughed out of the room.

    My friend said, like so many conservatives at the time, something like:

    Come on! You can’t be serious! Not even any prominent DEMOCRATS seriously doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and plans to use them!

    I don’t know what my friend would have said if people like Bill Clinton had come out against this war from the start. I doubt from his perspective it would have made much difference. My conservative friend despised Clinton with the popular passion that I’ve never been able to understand. But I do know that, from my perspective, it would have made a world of difference.

    I retrospect it has become obvious that this war is unjust and immoral, and that the case for it was not only poorly constructed, but a work of fiction. But, at the time, people like me, people who hadn’t yet made up our minds and who were wondering who the hell we could trust, could have used some help.

    I can’t say that I opposed the war from the beginning. I didn’t. But, I can say that I was highly suspicious of the war, and said so to anyone who can listen. Which means I came an awful lot closer to opposing this war than Bill Clinton ever did.

    Comment by Sandalstraps | November 29, 2007

  3. Yes, Jonathan, I remember Rowan Williams’ strong opposition well. I also remember the strong opposition of the NCC, especially the Sec. Gen. of the time, Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist and a former U.S. Congressman. Desmond Tutu came to the U.S. and spoke at the Feb. 2002 NYC peace rally–and has been denied entrance to the U.S. ever since. Nelson Mandela spoke out. My pastor–and our entire church–spoke out. And Chris, I remember a few JWT folk opposing the war on such grounds publicly–and Bill Clinton wasn’t one of them. As you say, it would have meant a lot to many if Clinton had even publicly expressed DOUBTS! He could have even said, “I tried to warn this admin. about Osama bin Laden, and they ignored me. Now they are abandoning the hunt for bin Laden, and the needed work in reconstructing Afghanistan and making sure the Taliban don’t regain control, to attack a nation which has no links to 9/11 and whose threat can continue to be contained.” He said no such thing, the coward.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 29, 2007

  4. It was Clinton’s Iraq policy that made the war, if not inevitable, then much more likely in the first place. His administration did everything it could to hype the danger posed by Saddam’s regime, talked up the threat of WMDs, officially supported a policy of regime change, etc. After 9/11 happened Saddam was already poised as the Hitler du jour in the minds of most policymakers and pundits, in no small part thanks to Slick Willie.

    Comment by Lee | November 29, 2007

  5. […] and portray himself as an early opponent of the Iraq war. But as I mentioned in a comment to Michael’s post, not only did Clinton not oppose the war, his Iraq policy made it much more likely than it […]

    Pingback by Clinton and Iraq « A Thinking Reed | November 29, 2007

  6. Lee, you have a point. It was Madeleine Albright who told the UN that thousands of starving Iraqi children would be “worth it.” All during the Clinton admin., I worked with those trying to get the humanitarian sanctions (food, medicines, etc.) lifted–far more than simply the miniscule trickle of the oil-for-food program. It was even Clinton who first talked about “regime change” in Iraq–although I don’t think he meant invasion. His double no-fly zones were probably a violation of international law. And his hyping of the Iraq threat took resources away from hunting for al-Qaeda.
    In fairness, the first Bush, H.W., called Saddam a modern Hitler before Slick Willie–but Clinton continued it. He chastised Democrats for not being more supportive of Gulf War I. Jerk.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 29, 2007

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