In August 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration began a massive military buildup in the Persian Gulf following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney predicted that a large U.S. military presence could extend for years. “Quite frankly, I never contemplated talk of 250,000 American troops in Saudi Arabia, nor talk of an American presence there of several years,” Joe Biden said. He said that if the administration wanted to go to war against Iraq, it would necessitate “not only some consultation, but quite extensive debate” in Congress, including over the War Powers Act. Cheney scoffed at such proposals. “My own personal belief,” Cheney said, “is that the War Powers Act may well be unconstitutional, that it’s an inappropriate limitation upon presidential power and authority. And for that reason, all presidents have refused to comply with it literally.”
Biden was an opponent of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, one of 47 senators to vote against authorizing the intervention officially aimed at expelling the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Biden had asked, “What vital interests of the United States justify sending Americans to their deaths in the sands of Saudi Arabia?” He also chastised the Bush administration for being overeager to send U.S. troops into conflict, accusing them of rushing in inappropriately and warning that the conflict would prove divisive even if tactically successful in the short run.
During the January 1991 floor debate on the invasion, Biden’s objections were largely raised in the framework of asserting the powers of Congress to declare war; he accused Bush of pushing a “monarchist” position. “If this crisis is really about upholding the law of nations, I suggest the president acknowledge that he start here by upholding the law at home and clearly acknowledge that only the Congress can take this nation to war,” Biden declared. He also made a prediction: “If there’s a war, we will prevail, we will win the battle, but 95 percent of the enmity of the Arab world outside of Iraq, to the extent there is any, will be directed at the United States.” Addressing his remarks at Bush, Biden said, “Even if you win today, you still lose.” He said, “The nation is divided on this issue.” Biden argued that if the Bush administration, which refused to comply with the War Powers Act, “went beyond our authorization” for specific and limited military operations in the Gulf, “we would have a constitutional crisis.” Biden’s concerns were prescient, particularly considering the history that would unfold after the 9/11 attacks. Despite his War Powers Act objections, Biden did not support Texas Democratic Rep. Henry González’s effort to impeach Bush after he initiated the 1991 Gulf War. Soon Biden would say his vote against the war was a “mistake.”