Late one night in September 2002, Senate Democrats were bitterly debating whether to authorize war with Iraq. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) had been agonizing over the issue, but now was urging colleagues to support a compromise that would still give President Bush much of the power he sought. Liberals were steamed.
“Why would you trust the president?” asked Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Despite such objections, Kerry two weeks later voted for the congressional resolution paving the way for the war. And no issue has dogged him more than that single vote, which has come under fire from the left and the right.
Many Democrats have criticized him for supporting the war. Republicans have accused him of changing his position for political gain.
A look at how Kerry made up his mind on the war vote indicates that he was conflicted before he cast his vote. The concerns that apparently haunted him -- the questions he asked at public hearings, the caveats and reservations he voiced on the Senate floor before casting his vote -- reflected his ambivalence as well as his ambition. And that ambivalence sowed the seeds of Kerry’s future shifts on the issue, including his vote a year later against a bill providing $87 billion in aid that went mainly to Iraq.
Republicans sought to spotlight Kerry’s record on Iraq by releasing a video Wednesday that portrayed him as inconsistent and indecisive -- an attack launched as Democrats formally nominated him as their presidential candidate. But what critics assail as opportunism, supporters praise as evidence of his ability to rethink issues and respond to changing circumstances.
And the circumstances concerning Iraq have changed significantly since the 2002 vote. While it now seems that Iraq had not stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, lawmakers then faced ambiguous evidence. The political climate, meanwhile, put pressure on Kerry to go along with Bush’s Iraq policy.
As the matter came to a head in Congress, polls showed strong public support for Bush’s get-tough approach toward Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And most analysts predicted that Democrats would suffer losses in that November’s midterm election if a large contingent of the party voted against the war.
All that has since been upended: More people now disapprove of Bush’s handling of the Iraq situation than approve of it, surveys show, and opposition to the war proved an asset, not a liability, in the Democratic presidential primaries.
The 2002 debate about Iraq was sparked by Bush’s State of the Union address early that year, when he identified Iraq as part of an “axis of evil.” But Kerry was already accustomed to the long-running debate about how to deal with Hussein.
He had opposed the 1991 war against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, arguing that allowing more time for economic sanctions could solve the crisis. In 1998, after Iraq kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors, Kerry condemned then-President Clinton for not objecting. Early in 2002, he visited the Middle East and consulted leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and their intelligence agencies about the potential Iraqi threat.
In July, as it appeared increasingly likely that Bush would pursue war with Iraq, Kerry -- a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- attended the first of several hearings conducted by the panel on the subject. Witnesses presented a grim view of Iraq’s weapons capabilities. But Kerry said that, based on his Middle East visit, he thought the region’s U.S. allies regarded Iraq with less alarm than the White House did.
He also said he did not believe that Iraq had nuclear weapons, but that Hussein had nuclear scientists working on acquiring the materials to construct them. And he openly wondered what the threshold for going to war would be.
“The question we need to think about is ... what brings you to the point of pulling the trigger,” Kerry said at the hearing.
In early September, Bush announced he would seek congressional approval to “do whatever is necessary to deal with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.” He also took his case to the United Nations, while emphasizing that the U.S. was prepared to act with or without U.N. sanction.
Kerry decried what he described as a rush to war, and expressed skepticism about the administration’s commitment to working through the U.N. “We don’t want to see this initiative turned into a charade, where it is merely a pro forma step on a road to an already determined decision,” he said.
In mid-September, the White House asked Congress for broad, open-ended authority to use force against Iraq if Bush decided it was necessary. Lawmakers of both parties, including Kerry, balked.
Kerry joined Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) in backing a compromise to emphasize further diplomatic efforts by the U.N. to restore arms inspections in Iraq. The proposal also would have made clear that the purpose of war with Iraq would be to dismantle weapons of mass destruction.
But Kerry and Biden could not sway liberal Democrats such as Boxer, at the meeting in late September, to seek support for the compromise.
“There was a strain in the room, because we knew we were dealing with life and death,” Boxer recalled.
Kerry argued that the compromise would prod Bush to build a multinational coalition against Hussein. “He was very fervent ... that he trusted that the president would not go alone -- that he would build a coalition,” Boxer said. “I disagreed.”
Ultimately, the compromise was scuttled when Bush and then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) reached an accord on a broader war authorization than Kerry had been contemplating. That left Kerry with a decision on whether to support a measure that went further than he wanted or oppose any authorization at all.
As the prospect of war increased, key lawmakers began to raise questions about the urgency of the threat from Baghdad and pushed for more information.
Kerry attended a three-hour, closed-door briefing by George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, Assistant Secretary of State Carl W. Ford Jr. and other senior officials. The intelligence picture they presented was mixed, with Tenet unequivocal in describing Iraq as a threat while Ford raised doubts, according to a Senate aide who sat in on the meeting.
“Carl Ford said one thing; George Tenet said something else,” the aide said. “I don’t know how that helped them make a decision.”
Just a week before the Senate vote, Kerry and other lawmakers got their best chance to review intelligence data when the CIA belatedly sent to Congress a detailed assessment of Iraq’s weapons programs. The conclusions at the top of the 93-page report were unambiguous.
“We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction programs,” the executive summary said.
But the rest of the report was more complicated and nuanced. Sprinkled in its pages were dissents from agencies questioning some of the more sweeping conclusions. For example, the State Department said the evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program was “inadequate.”
Kerry did not read the report, his aides say, because he had been briefed on its contents by Tenet.
A congressional aide who asked not to be named said Kerry was hardly alone in not reading the full report, which was available for lawmakers to review only in a few secure locations. But if he had, the dissenting views might have made him more skeptical of the case for war with Iraq, the aide said.
Kerry confronted the question in the early phases of the 2004 presidential campaign. Would-be candidates had been traveling the country taking soundings. Most, including Gephardt, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), were lining up behind the president on the war. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean opposed the war, but at that point was little known.
The weekend before the Senate vote, Kerry attended a Democratic fundraiser in Iowa and drew sustained applause for raising questions about the push for war. But he was still weighing his options.
“I have the ability either way to make substantive arguments for what I’m doing,” Kerry told the Boston Globe.
He denied his presidential aspirations would influence his decision. “This is a gut, conscience vote. It has nothing to do with politics.”
Less than two days before the Senate vote Oct. 11, Kerry said his gut told him to vote for the resolution. But his speech on the Senate floor was riddled with reservations and caveats.
Despite the doubts he had expressed about the administration’s commitment to diplomacy, Kerry said he would back the resolution on the strength of assurances from Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that they would not go to war unilaterally or without exhausting diplomatic options.
“Let there be no doubt or confusion,” Kerry said. “I will support a multilateral effort to disarm [Hussein] by force, if we ever exhaust those other options as the president has promised. But I will not support a unilateral U.S. war against Iraq unless that threat is imminent and the multilateral effort has not proven possible.”
There was nothing in the resolution that guaranteed those conditions would be met. Nonetheless, he was one of 29 Democrats to vote for the resolution, which passed 77 to 23.
In his Senate speech, Kerry had said, “I will be among the first to speak out” if Bush failed to seek international support and go to war as a last resort.
In December, less than a week after he announced he was exploring a presidential bid, Kerry accused Bush of forcing the war debate to distract attention from economic problems.
In January, he criticized Bush for what he called a “hellbent-for-leather” dash to war without allowing more time for weapons inspection and diplomacy. “The United States should never go to war because it wants to,” he said. “The United States should go to war because we have to.”
In the fall of 2003, his criticism of Bush’s polices led to his vote against the $87-billion bill financing continued operations in Iraq. Only 12 senators voted against the financing measure, and only three -- besides Kerry -- voted for the war and against the second measure. Among them was Kerry’s eventual running mate, John Edwards.
Critics say Kerry’s vote was politically motivated. The surprise leader in the Democratic presidential race had become Dean, who was riding a strong tide of antiwar sentiment among party activists.
Kerry said he voted against the bill because Bush had gone to war recklessly and without a plan for postwar Iraq. He called it a “principled” vote designed to pressure the administration to change its policies.
But even nonpartisan analysts say that voting for the war resolution and then opposing the subsequent funding measure is a key part of the GOP attack on him as a flip-flopper.
“The strategic blunder is that he’s allowed Bush to make the case that this guy is all over the map,” said Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford University political scientist.
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.