The partisan rhetoric over homeland security and Iraq policy has run hot and cold over the past week. President Bush, pushing for quick approval of homeland security legislation, was the worst offender, making the repeated charge that congressional Democrats are "not interested in the security of the American people." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle made an emotional response Wednesday, calling the president's accusation "outrageous" and criticizing the White House's efforts to use the war on terrorism for partisan advantage in the November elections. Earlier in the week, Al Gore ratcheted the partisanship up another notch when he emerged from the wilderness to accuse the president of "squandering" the world's support since the Sept. 11 attacks by threatening unilateral action against Iraq.
The escalating debate is healthy, up to a point. If anything, Daschle and other Democratic leaders in Congress had been too acquiescent until now in allowing the Bush administration's homeland security legislation and war plans for Iraq to gather momentum without adequate scrutiny. Until this week, they had left most of the serious questioning of the administration's plans to congressional Republicans whose voices carry weight on foreign policy.
The president helped to cool tensions Thursday when he said "the security of our country is the commitment of both political parties and the responsibility of both elected branches of government." The White House and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle went back to work on compromise language for a resolution that would authorize the use of force against Iraq.
Even though the overly personal and partisan sniping has receded for now, it already has overshadowed more measured and learned concerns being expressed by experts whose views transcend partisanship.
For example, on the same day Gore's San Francisco speech drew wide attention, three retired four-star generals warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that attacking Iraq without broad international support could increase dangers to the United States in a variety of ways. Their appearance drew relatively little attention, even though their expertise is unquestioned and their opinions are untainted by partisanship.
Defenders of the administration lashed out at Gore, but they haven't responded to similar concerns expressed by Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander, and Gen. Joseph Hoar, former chief of Central Command. In their testimony, they questioned the urgency of taking on Iraq and worried that the issue could detract from the broader campaign against terrorism. A day later, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led allied forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, raised his own concerns, questioning whether the White House is underestimating the task of bringing political stability to Iraq and the surrounding region even if we succeed in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime.
These generals, like most of the other leaders voicing skepticism about the Bush administration's plans, do not necessarily oppose the effort to overthrow Hussein and neutralize Iraq's weapons programs. However, they are asking questions that deserve full and honest answers. It is easy, though not necessarily accurate, to dismiss as politically motivated every concern expressed by a prominent Democratic politician. It is much more difficult to ignore concerns expressed by generals who know as much as anyone about waging war in Iraq.
Coverage of the international debate over Iraq also has been distorted. In recent days, most attention focused on Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder narrowly won re-election after campaigning as a harsh critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy. Relations with Washington eroded even further after German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin claimed that President Bush, like Adolf Hitler, was threatening war to distract his people from domestic problems.
U.S.-German relations will survive. Schroeder has apologized to the president and dropped Daeubler-Gmelin from his new government. However, the controversy obscured more legitimate international concerns about the Bush administration's Iraq policy. With the exception of Britain's Tony Blair, other partners in the 1991 Persian Gulf alliance are hesitant to back the president until they receive further assurances about the White House's military and political agenda.
There is no context in which it would not be offensive for a German official to compare the president of the United States to Hitler, and President Bush deserved the apology he received. Having been subjected to such a slur, he should have anticipated how some of his own recent comments would be received. Sen. Daschle is a Vietnam veteran. Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Max Cleland suffered grievous wounds while serving their country in battle. There is no context in which it would not be offensive to claim that they and other patriotic Americans are "not interested in the security of the American people."
Debate -- even heated debate -- is a healthy American tradition, particularly when the issue at hand is as important as the prospect of war. In fact, the absence of full debate in such circumstances would be dangerously unhealthy. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans and most other people in the civilized world are prepared to support the president whenever he makes a compelling case for action that is vital to our security, and that of the free world. When the administration attempts to curtail that discussion, it risks losing the domestic and international support that could be crucial in the political and military battles to come.
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