What Chafee was right about

Mar 26, 2013

In the flurry of  commentary about the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, the role of one Rhode Island political figure who did the right thing has not received much attention from the Rhode Island media.

That would be then-Republican Sen. Linc  Chafee’s lonely vote against President Bush’s rush to war under the most dubious of rationales. Chafee was the only Republican senator who voted against the ill-fated Iraq War that Bush pushed under the false evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Roll the film back 10 years and the U.S. was in a different political place, full of revenge for the horrors of Sept. 11 and mired in jingoism and war fever fanned by Bush and his band of  Wilsonianism  on steroids.

After he lost the 2006 senate race to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse because Rhode Islanders were fed up with Bush and the Iraq War, Chafee retreated to Brown University’s Watson Institute, became a visiting scholar and wrote a 2008 book about the run to war. The book, entitled, ``Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless Presiden,'' is still relevant as a guide to how the neocons of the right and Democratic enablers on the left allowed Bush carte blanche to prosecute the war.

Chafee writes of his surprise at ``how quickly key Democrats (in the senate) crumbled.’’ Democratic senators, Chafee said, ``went down to the meetings at the  White House and the Pentagon and came back to the chamber ready to salute. With wrinkled brows they gravely intoned that Saddam Hussein must be stopped. Stopped from what? They had no conviction or evidence of their own. They were just parroting the administration’s nonsense. They knew it could go terribly wrong; they also knew it could go terribly right. Which did they fear more?”

Unlike Republicans, the Democrats were not getting the influence, the home-state bacon, White House invites and Congressional goodies that goes along with being the majority party. The Democrats had learned not to trust Bush before the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked on Sept. 11.

A bewildered Chafee sought an explanation. He turned to an unnamed Democratic senator who opposed the war but was respected by his party’s leaders. This senator tells Chafee ``in confidence’’ what really motivated Democrats.

``They are afraid the war will be over as fast as Gulf One. Few will die, the oil will flow and gasoline will be 90 cents a gallon.’’

Neither Chafee nor RI Democratic Sen. Jack Reed have ever revealed who made that prescient statement, but just about everybody in Rhode Island’s political firmament believes that is was Reed himself, who also did the right thing and voted against the Iraq War.

There is a surreal passage in the book when Chafee asks the CIA for evidence that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. ``What they had, I discovered as the meeting stretched into an hour, was next to nothing,’’ Chafee writes. ``They showed me what they had with little comment and no enthusiasm. Someone handed me one of the infamous aluminum tubes, the kind we were told Saddam was using to enrich weapons-grade uranium while plotting mushroom clouds over America, the `smoking gun that Condoleezza Rice had warned about.''

``I looked at the aluminum tube, looked at the analysts and thought I can go buy one of these at Adler’s Hardware,’’ the iconic Providence hardware store, writes Chafee.

``Few members of Congress were willing to stand up to the schoolyard tough (Bush) and in the early morning hours of October 11, 2002, weeks before the crucial midterm elections, he bullied them into declaring Saddam an imminent threat.’’

Then Democratic-Rep. Patrick Kennedy voted to support the war, but later acknowledged that he made a mistake. Kennedy’s father, then-Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy cast his vote against the Iraq War.

Ten years later, we know that the Iraq War was a mistake; does anyone rational foreign policy expert or citizen really believe getting rid of  Saddam was worth more than $2.2 trillion in U.S. taxpayers money or the estimated 190,000 deaths of  soldiers and Iraqi civilians?

The Costs of War project at Brown’s Watson Institute made those estimates.