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Springtime mood in Washington

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush must long for the not-so-distant time when most of the world was behind his war on terrorism. That was back when we knew what had to be done -- military action to take out the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan. That kick-off was a diplomatic and military success. Since then, however, the world has become a lot more complicated, and Bush is struggling to stay ahead of events that are testing his leadership at home and abroad. Life for the president would be so much simpler these days if Ariel Sharon had not decided to open his own war on terrorism.

Sharon and Yasser Arafat are ignoring Bush's demand that they stop the bloodshed. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been enduring lectures from Arab dictators and European leaders as he tries to cool down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It didn't make his job any easier to have former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who talks tougher than Sharon acts, in Washington stomping all over Bush's diplomacy and telling anyone who would listen that Powell's efforts "won't amount to anything." Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president's most reliable partner in the war on terrorism, has gone wobbly on military action against Iraq, and a surge of political conflict, some of it violent, is threatening the stability of war-battered Afghanistan.

The world is a mess, and you can't blame congressional Democrats for feeling that foreign policy is where the action is and wanting to be in the loop. They complain of being ignored by the White House even as they try to maintain a facade of bipartisan unity. They rightfully argue that Congress should be part of the foreign policy debate, but they are reluctant to wade in lest they be seen as undermining the president's leadership as he tries to manage a dangerous international crisis. Democrats would settle for regular consultation and White House briefings. So far they've had to rely mostly on CNN to keep up with developments.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt sent the president a letter expressing concern that lawmakers "are learning about U.S. foreign policy developments and military activities overseas through the media rather than from the administration." White House press secretary Ari Fleischer gave Gephardt's complaint short shrift. "Sometimes you just have to recognize that in Washington, no amount of consultation is enough for the Hill," Fleischer told reporters.

Everyone seems a little touchy and anxious. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., declined an invitation to a White House event promoting charitable giving because he was not asked to share the podium with the president. Egos are easily bruised in this town. Congressional leaders in both parties are working to keep rank-and-file lawmakers from saying or doing anything that could disturb Powell's peace mission in the Middle East. That's not easy.

"At this point for Congress, the less said the better," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

Bush is catching criticism for his Mideast policy from both liberal Democrats who represent large Jewish constituencies and conservative Republicans who believe the Bible calls for support of Israel. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., took to the Senate floor to criticize the administration's policy as "muddled, confused and inconsistent." He accused the president of doing "a 180-degree turn" in antiterrorism policy that gives "a pat on the back" to "Arafat the terrorist."

In the Senate, Democrat Diane Feinstein of California and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are co-sponsoring legislation to cut U.S. ties with the Palestinian Authority unless Arafat ends terrorist attacks on Israelis. A similar bill has been introduced in the House. It didn't help matters to have Netanyahu in town stoking anti-Palestinian sentiments on the airwaves, rallying Israeli supporters in Congress and calling for the toppling of Arafat's regime.

I found the mood here a little depressing, despite the splendid spring coat the city is wearing. The world is looking to Colin Powell to pull off a miracle before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict explodes into a wider war. Yet, you hear members of Congress urging Sharon not to listen to the president of the United States when he calls on the Israeli forces to halt their incursion and begin withdrawing. Given the pro-Israel sentiment on Capitol Hill, it's understandable why Daschle and other congressional leaders are recommending quiet time for lawmakers while Powell is in the Middle East.

But there's no keeping Rep. Cynthia McKinney quiet when she decides to deliver one of her radical critiques of American foreign policy. The Georgia Democrat can always be counted on to embarrass her party in a time of crisis. In a recent radio interview in Berkeley, Calif., McKinney called for an investigation into whether the Bush administration had advance notice of the Sept. 11 attacks and did nothing to prevent them. She went on to say "persons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new war."

The best way to enjoy Washington in the springtime is to tune out the rabble and smell the flowers.

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