WASHINGTON - Retiring Sen. Sam Nunn now believes his vote against authorizing the Persian Gulf War hurt his credibility and removed once and for all whatever thoughts he had about running for president.
"I think I was wrong on that," said Mr. Nunn, calling it the greatest regret of his career as the Senate's unquestioned expert on national defense. "I think I was wrong because if I had voted that way, it would have given a more solid vote for the authorization of the war, which I thought was justified."
The Georgia Democrat said he voted against the war authorization sought by then-President Bush because he thought economic and political sanctions against Iraq should have been given a chance to work first.
The Senate voted 52-47 in 1991 to authorize Bush to use military force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Earlier, the Senate had rejected by a 53-46 vote a Nunn resolution to postpone authorization to give sanctions more time.
Mr. Nunn, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, said he opposed an early use of U.S. military force primarily because intelligence and military experts had predicted that it would cost the U.S. 10,000 to 20,000 casualties to remove Iraq from Kuwait.
"That assumption was wrong, and I think because the assumption was wrong, the delay in the war would not have accomplished the purpose that I thought it would, which was to cut the casualty rate down," he said.
The pivotal vote removed once and for all whatever thoughts Mr. Nunn had been entertaining about seeking the presidency in 1992, he said.
"If there was any kind of 10 percent possibility I was going to run before that, that was eliminated during that period because I knew perfectly well that the position I had taken on that war in the next election would become the major debating point," he recalled.
As a conservative with impeccable defense credentials, Mr. Nunn's advocacy of prolonged sanctions provided political cover to many Democrats who opposed the war. But unlike some Democrats, Mr. Nunn insisted from the beginning that war would be justified if sanctions didn't work.
It was because of that core belief, Mr. Nunn said, that he was prepared to vote for the resolution authorizing the war after his own alternative was rejected by the Senate. But he changed his mind after talking with then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and then-Sen. David Boren, D-Okla.
"I yielded to the feeling on the part of my colleagues that since I had been one of the people that others were looking to, that they would feel that I had basically left them out on a limb," he said.
Mr. Nunn said he agreed to oppose the resolution only after Mr. Mitchell promised to bring up a subsequent measure putting the Senate on record supporting the president and the troops.
"We did that the next week but that wasn't a substitute, because that didn't get the same kind of international attention," he said.
Because the war ended quickly with just over 500 American soldiers killed or wounded, Mr. Nunn said his vote against the resolution authorizing the war probably made little difference.
And if the early predications of tens of thousands of American casualties had proven correct, Mr. Nunn said the country would have been far better off if the war had been endorsed from the beginning by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"That's what bothered me more than anything else that I did," he said. "It wasn't my position about the sanctions. That turned out to be a wrong assumption. ... I did not feel badly about it. What I felt badly about, I felt I had let the troops down and the families, if things had gone wrong."