An open letter to Al Franken: Why did you support the Iraq war?

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Dear Al Franken,

Why did you support the Iraq war at the beginning? Why did you trust Colin Powell on the weapons question and not Hans Blix? And when did you change your mind? And why? And what U.S. policy do you favor now?

I ask you these question in an open letter because you have declined my request for an interview. I regret that. But one way or the other, given the centrality of the Iraq issue and the muddled state of your past comments, I believe you must answer these questions before you can ask anti-war DFLers to get comfortable with the idea of you as their candidate, or as their senator.

On Almanac last month, Eric Eskola asked you about the evolution of your views on the war:

Franken: “I was very torn in the leadup to the war. I really didn’t believe that an administration would deliberately mislead us into a war. And when that became clear, I became a very vocal critic against it. DFLers have heard me for years and years speak not only against the Bush policy but against what Norm Coleman did and didn’t do.

Eskola: Is there a year when you decided you were against it.

Franken: Yes, 2003″

I’ve reviewed dozens of statements you’ve made about Iraq since 2002, and will gladly look at more if you believe that those I saw are not representative of your evolving views. But from what I’ve seen, a more accurate version of your answer would have been something like this:

Franken: I supported the war at first. I had my doubts. But on balance, I believed that Saddam had the WMD and I favored the decision to use military force to remove him. In 2003 and 2004, I put in a lot of work at documenting and popularizing the evidence of the lies the administration had told to get us into the war, and the corruption and incompetence of the conduct of the war. I also hit back hard at the right wing noise machine for trying to put a rosy spin on how it was going in Iraq. And I made several USO trips to entertain the troops.

But until 2005, I never really recanted my original support for the war. Now I agree that we shouldn’t have gone in. Until recently, I opposed deadlines for troop withdrawals. Now I favor a deadline for starting to withdraw and a non-binding deadline for getting all the combat troops out, changing the mission to training and other limited purposes, and encouraging regional diplomacy.

Again, if I’ve read you wrong, please correct me. If you provide a statement answering some of my questions, I will post it unedited on Black Ink.

Most of the transcripts of interviews you have given are no longer available online, so I cannot provide many links. In the interest of avoiding a humongous-long post, and unless you or readers of Black Ink ask that I show more of the backup in a follow-up, this summarizes what I take to be the evolution of your Iraq views, interspersed with some questions I would like to ask you.

Overview

In 2002, on “Donahue” you endorsed the idea of going into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, although in this particular transcript it’s hard to tell when you’re kidding. You haven’t said much about the pros and cons that made you feel that way. But you have said more than once, in explaining your views at this stage, that you “believed Colin Powell.”

I take it, in this context, “I believed Colin Powell” means that you were convinced by Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations in which he claimed that Saddam was concealing ongoing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons development programs.

But Hans Blix and Mohammed el-Baradei, the U.N.’s top weapons inspectors, specifically contradicted Powell’s claims. Before the U.S. invaded, Blix’s inspectors had looked in the places where U.S. intelligence told them to look. (It is not true, as often suggested, that the U.N. had to give Saddam advance notice of their inspection plans. In the last weeks before the bombing started, the U.N. inspectors demanded, and achieved, total access to all sites with no notice.)

Blix stated that he was able to look everywhere in Iraq and could find no stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons nor facilities to develop WMD. He specifically disputed Powell’s claims of mobile weapons labs.

So why didn’t you trust Hans Blix, who, after all, didn’t work for the Bush administration, and may have been freer than Powell to go where the evidence took him.

If you supported the war during, the run-up, the question arises:

If you had been in the Senate in October of 2002, would you have voted for the authorization to use force in Iraq?

Your friend and political hero, Sen. Paul Wellstone, was the only senator up for reelection that year to vote “no.” He based his vote largely on the absence of U.N. backing. Norm Coleman didn’t vote, but he was running against Wellstone at the time and made clear that he would have voted “yes.” How would you have voted?

2003-2004

On Almanac last month, you said that you turned against the war in 2003. In your statements of 2003, you became steadily more critical of Iraq-related administration dishonesty, incompetence and corruption. You had taken to accusing President Bush of lying to get the country into the war.

But I don’t see where you stated in 2003 that the war was a mistake and that you were wrong to have supported it at the beginning.

On the contrary, on Sept. 10, 2003, on “Topic A with Tina Brown,” while accusing the president of lying in his 2003 State of the Union address, and ripping Brit Hume for an “absolutely disgusting” suggestion that U.S. soldiers in Iraq were in less danger than ordinary people were in California because you said:

“There were reasons to go to war against Iraq and I–I was very ambivalent about it and I still don’t know if it was necessarily wrong.”

In 2004, you said you

“certainly support the mission that we’ve been backed into, which is to make Iraq secure enough to become as Western style a democracy as it can be.” (”Fresh Air,” Jan. 6, 2004).

You said you opposed a U.S. withdrawal and in April of 2004, on CNN (”Wolf Blitzer Reports,” Apr. 6), you said the U.S. “had to” win in Iraq, but you also blamed the administration for spoiling the chances of getting international cooperation by lying about WMD.

2005

In the statements I have seen, the “Today” show, in October of 2005 is the first time you said plainly that:

“First of all, we shouldn’t have gone in.”

Perhaps you had been saying this for a quite a while on your radio show (I don’t have transcripts of those.)

Your current position

In your latest book, “The Truth (with jokes)” (publication date: 10/25/2005) you write several chapters on Iraq, detailing the administration’s lies, incompetence and corruption with precision. But in the only section I could find about your own position, you take a pass (this is on page 288 of the hardcover):

“I don’t know what to do in Iraq. I don’t trust [the Bush crowd] to stay, and I don’t trust them to leave… I want us to succeed in Iraq, but I don’t know if it’s possible…Some people think that our presence there creates more chaos and that we should leave. Other people think leaving will cause a civil war…”

During 2006, you continued say you opposed U.S. troops leaving Iraq, at least “precipitously.”

On your campaign website’s Iraq issue piece, you say “it’s time to leave Iraq,” then you say “I support immediately beginning the process of bringing our troops home.” And you said, on Almanac, that you would have voted for the Levin-Reid amendment.

Levin-Reid, which was blocked by a Republican filibuster in July, would have mandated a date for the first withdrawals of an unspecified number of U.S. troops with no consequences if Pres. Bush ignored the date, set a target date for withdrawing the last combat troops, and envisioned the continued presence of substantial numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq for specified missions.

I hope I haven’t come across as overly tendentious. I was going for tough-but-fair-and-accurate. I would be happy to know whether you think I’ve misinterpreted you. Certainly, you’re not the only American whose views on the war have changed. I do believe that Minnesota voters will want to understand your evolution on Iraq.

Why did you trust Powell and not Blix? When is it necessary for the U.S. to have U.N. backing for a war? Would you have voted for the 2002 authorization of the war? When exactly did you decide the Iraq war was a mistake? How far would you go now to force a change in Bush’s policy.

Sincerely,

Eric Black