Rest in peace: Truth-teller Bob Graham, who defied Iraq war fever

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How sad it is that few Americans have heard of Bob Graham, who died Tuesday at 87, because this guy was truly a profile in courage when we needed it most. And how sad it was, at a pivot point in our history, that few of his fellow Senate Democrats heeded his prescient words of warning.

Graham was many things in life – a Florida senator and governor who connected with voters by creating what he called “workdays,” guest-laboring as a bellhop, plumber, tomato picker, citrus packer, and road paver – but most of all he deserves to be remembered for defying the litany of lies ginned up by the George W. Bush regime to justify an invasion of Iraq. If only we had more Grahams today, to cut a swath through our Orwellian disinformation culture.

War fever was rampant in October of 2002 – 9/11 was still raw – and Team Bush was busy smearing anyone who voiced any qualms about kicking butt. Dissent was deemed “unpatriotic.” But Bob Graham had qualms and refused to knuckle under.

The Senate, in a bipartisan capitulation, voted to give Bush the authority to launch his preemptive war against Saddam Hussein despite zero evidence the dictator had any weapons of mass destruction. Most Senate Democrats voted yes, clearly afraid of being tagged as “soft” on national security. The capitulators included virtually every Democrat with presidential ambitions: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Joe Biden.

Graham had presidential ambitions, too. But unlike the others, he told the unvarnished truth. When he sought the 2004 Democratic nomination (he dropped out early because he needed heart surgery), he said stuff on the campaign trail that was very uncool at the time. Such as: “The quagmire in Iraq is a distraction that the Bush administration, and the Bush administration alone, has created. (Bush has) knowingly deceived the American people.”

Only 21 Senate Democrats voted no on that fateful day back in 2002. Graham, chairman of the chamber’s Intelligence Committee, was arguably the most prominent naysayer. He thumbed his nose at the war mob because – unlike most of his Democratic colleagues – he actually did his homework.

Shortly before the big Senate vote, he was “stunned” (his word) to learn the Bush team had never asked the intelligence community to formally assess whether Hussein actually possessed WMDs. How are we supposed to know whether Hussein has such weapons, Graham asked, if there’s no official assessment? Are we supposed to just take Bush and Cheney at their word?

Graham invoked his senatorial authority to order an official assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Three weeks later, the intel community complied. Graham read the 90 classified pages and saw there was no hard evidence that Hussein had WMDs. Indeed, Graham said later, the report featured “vigorous dissents.” He also learned that the intel community had no sources inside Iraq, nobody on the ground who could verify the Bush-Cheney pre-war spin.

But most of his fellow Dems didn’t read the report. Instead they relied on a declassified 25-page version that was released to the public. Magically, none of the dissenting opinions appeared in the sanitized report.

On Oct. 11 the senators voted on whether to give Bush his blank check. But first, they debated. Graham’s words would stand the test of time. He said that invading Iraq, which had no role in 9/11, would detract from the mission to find 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. It is wrong, he said, “to focus our military and intelligence resources on the wrong target.” He quoted Churchill, who once warned that those who surrender to wrong-headed war fever become “the slaves of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” Graham said: “With sadness, I predict we will live to regret this day.”

And so we did. We spent $728 billion on the Iraq war (according to the Defense Department), we logged 4,492 Americans killed in action, we treated 32,292 wounded Americans (health costs not included in that $728 billion), we killed roughly 200,000 Iraqi civilians, and we destabilized that region of the Middle East.

Graham took no pleasure in being right about what he later called “one of the most serious security mistakes in the history of the United States.” The tragedy is that so few of his colleagues had the guts to follow his lead.

He once said, “We need to make a greater investment in human intelligence.” Given the pandemic of stupidity in our current political discourse, that strikes me as sound advice – and a worthy epitaph.

Copyright 2024 Dick Polman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at Email him at [email protected]