Pelosi's Pirouettes

May 21, 2009 Topic: CongressTorturePoliticsSecurity Region: Americas Tags: TortureIraq War

Pelosi's Pirouettes

Nancy Pelosi’s flip-flopping votes on the Iraq War and wishy-washy statements on torture are indicative of the supine stance Congress took during the Bush administration.

The political life of Representative Nancy Pelosi appears almost diametrically divided into two common eras of recent history, pre and postwar-the 2003 War in Iraq, that is. Before the United States invaded Iraq, Pelosi had cast key, politically risky votes on foreign policy. Pelosi's public record suggests that the onset of the war had an immediate, soporific effect on the prominent Democrat.

Pelosi seems to have summarized her apparent, postwar approach towards the Bush administration in a recent press conference regarding the waterboarding of detainees. When asked if she had at any point raised any objections to the practice, Pelosi responded, "They don't come in to consult. They come in to notify." Under her postwar leadership, Congress indeed seemed to have become a spectator body that took notice of, and made little exception to, the foreign policy of the Bush administration-until it became widely unpopular.

In January 1991, Pelosi became one of 183 members to vote against Gulf War I. During the Clinton presidency, Pelosi firmly criticized the administration on some issues, such as human rights and U.S. policy toward China. Before U.S. troops landed in Iraq in 2003, Pelosi became one of 133 legislators to vote against authorizing the use of force.

In the post-9/11 period-when some of her Democratic colleagues were apparently cowed by a still popular, bull-horned-equipped President Bush-Pelosi delivered a statement supporting her decision to vote against giving Bush authority to launch a war. That succinct October 3, 2002 statement covered a lot of ground. Pelosi cited concern about the impact that a war in Iraq could have on the war against terrorism; maintained that, as the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, she saw no evidence suggesting Iraq posed an imminent threat; and said that all diplomatic remedies had not yet been exhausted. When she made the vote and delivered the statement, Pelosi was the House Democratic whip and had at stake her continuing ascent within the party.

A few short months later and two days after the invasion of Iraq, Pelosi (now the House Minority Leader) voted in favor of and rallied support for a resolution that stated "unequivocal support and appreciation of the Nation to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq as part of the on-going Global War on Terrorism." Such fawning legislation, which passed the House by a resounding 392 to 11 vote, seems more congruous to Venezuela's Asamblea Nacional than to the U.S. Congress.

Pelosi not only voted for the resolution but also reportedly pressed other skeptical members to do the same. But she publicly criticized the resolution soon after, demonstrating a certain political elasticity in straddling an issue. "I certainly think we could have done better than this resolution, but don't let that stand in your way for us to give a resounding vote of support in appreciation and pride for our men and women in uniform," she said. "There is no heavier burden for a President and no more solemn choice for this nation than to send our brave men and women in uniform into battle. As Commander-in-Chief, President Bush has made that difficult decision," she added. For good measure, Pelosi went on to say that she had met with the B-2 crews that could soon be engaged in Iraq and they were "brave and patriotic," the operative words of the moment. Pelosi later declined to back legislation calling for a troop withdrawal from Iraq-such as Representative John Murtha's troop redeployment bill, first introduced in November 2005-until such a measure became widely popular.

Pelosi has also lent her support to wars waged by other countries. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Pelosi made a statement in support of Israel's use of force and voted in favor of Resolution 921, which stated that "the seizure of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah terrorists was an unprovoked attack and Israel has the right, and indeed the obligation, to respond." Pelosi denounced Hamas' and Hezbollah's practice of using "civilians as shields by concealing weapons in civilian areas" but did not criticize Israel's use of force in densely populated areas. In regards to Israel's invasion of Gaza late last year, Pelosi swept aside any questions regarding the proportionality of Israel's actions: "Humanitarian needs of all innocent civilians must also be addressed. But when Israel is attacked, the United States must continue to stand strongly with its friend and democratic ally," she said.

Before the invasion of Iraq, Pelosi demonstrated commendable prescience in pointing out the potential hazards of introducing a new front in the war on terror. Once the decision to go to war was made, however, Pelosi ceased to raise those legitimate concerns, apparently subscribing to the popular view that the president and his policies should not be questioned during a time of war.

Americans cannot know if some of the Bush-era abuses might have been averted given a more activist and vigilant legislature, since Pelosi and many of her colleagues assumed a relatively passive role during his administration. As additional abuses will likely be made public in coming months, the nation's international prestige will continue to suffer. The latest questions surrounding what and when Pelosi learned about the waterboarding of detainees should be seen as part of the congresswoman's larger postwar record.

Pelosi has urged the press to remain solely focused on Bush and other members of his administration in regards to torture. But the role (or the lack thereof) of Pelosi and Congress remains legitimately newsworthy, not only because the congresswoman has denounced torture in the past, but also because it may help the public understand how so many transgression and missteps occurred during the Bush era despite the checks and balances of the American political system.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.