By the fall of 2002, the Bush Administration had begun mobilizing for the invasion of Iraq. Biden’s view was that Saddam Hussein, who had violated every international agreement he had signed but was not an immediate threat, would have to be confronted sooner or later. But he also worried that a unilateral war with Iraq would distract America from the tasks it had only just begun—stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating Al Qaeda—and seriously damage the alliances necessary to eliminate terrorism and other problems that freely cross borders: weapons proliferation, disease, environmental damage, ethnic conflict, impoverishment. “The burden was on Saddam,” Biden said. “But I would not have prematurely forced the world’s hand on whether or not to go to war, because I’d get the wrong answer.”There you have it. Boxer and Wellstone: the great simpletons of their time. By refusing to compromise, by standing by principles drawn with crayon, Boxer and Wellstone hastened the path to war. This anecdote deserves to be blown up, highlighted, and handed out to every 'principled' leftist who thinks that taking an absolute stand is always the right think to do.
Instead, he tried to slow the Administration’s momentum without shifting the burden from Saddam. It was in his party’s power to do so—Democrats still held the majority in the Senate (though they were about to lose it, in part because the public didn’t trust them on the issue of national security). Together with Senator Richard Lugar, of Indiana, the committee’s ranking Republican, Biden drafted an alternative to the Administration’s Iraq resolution that would have placed various restraints on the President, making it harder for him to wage war unilaterally and forcing him to bolster his case that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Lugar had assembled a surprisingly large number of Republicans—twenty-five or so out of the forty-nine—who were uneasy with the Administration’s bellicose stance. In order to deliver their votes, Lugar needed Biden to line up at least forty Democrats; and Biden was sure of only thirty-eight.
As Biden recalled, on September 30th Lugar, who was in touch with the White House, called him. “Joe, I fear in the next twenty-four, forty-eight hours, the President’s going to cut a deal with Gephardt,” he said.
Biden was stunned. “Gephardt? Gephardt’s not going to do this.”
“Joe, I’m telling you. They’re working two sides here. They’re working us, keeping us occupied, but they’re working just as hard meeting with him. Whoever they reach an agreement with first, they’re going to go with.”
If Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic minority leader, came out for the Administration’s resolution, it would be politically almost impossible for any Republican to support the Biden-Lugar alternative. Biden had to gather the Democratic holdouts immediately and persuade them to stand behind his resolution so that he and Lugar could move it onto the Senate floor the next day.
That evening, Biden met with half a dozen leading Democrats who were opposed to any war resolution at all. “They said, ‘It’s not right, you’re not principled, asking us to do this,’” Biden recalled. “I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Please spare me the lecture. I thought our job was to do as much as we could to prevent this President from going off to war half-cocked. Does anybody in here believe that we’re going to get any resolution remotely approaching the constraints this resolution has?’” Biden warned his colleagues, “Guess what? Your principle is going to kill a lot of Americans.” But the antiwar Democrats were intractable. At the end of the meeting, Senator Paul Wellstone, of Minnesota, and Senator Barbara Boxer, of California, left the room arm in arm, chuckling.