The missing debate
With Congress on the verge of approving a resolution giving President Bush broad authority to wage war against Iraq, our Washington leaders still have not engaged in the full and open debate the American people deserve before our nation makes such a grave commitment.
In his Monday night speech, President Bush laid out his most detailed case yet, but that case should have been made at the start of Washington's deliberations over Iraq, not after the issue already had been decided behind closed doors. The president made new allegations Monday that warrant further scrutiny, but the House and Senate already are lined up to approve formal resolutions that would effectively dispose of the Iraq issue by the end of the week.
Blame for the inadequate public debate is bipartisan. The president struck a more conciliatory tone Monday night. For weeks, though, he and other administration officials disdained compromise in Congress and at the United Nations and did their best to intimidate skeptics into silence.
Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership has been fractured and incoherent. Richard Gephardt, the top Democrat in the House, agreed to resolution language that gives the president much broader authority than he would have received under a bipartisan resolution crafted in the Senate. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who harbors presidential ambitions in 2004, staked out a hawkish position that is at odds with that of his 2000 running mate, Al Gore. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has waffled somewhere in the middle.
There is no fundamental disagreement in Washington on the issue of Saddam Hussein's evil intent. The Iraqi leader is an enemy of the United States who is devoted to developing weapons of mass destruction that could one day be used against U.S. and allied interests.
However, there is deep disagreement over our defense priorities. President Bush said Monday night that "Iraq is unique." Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that. In exaggerating Iraq's immediate threat to the United States for rhetorical effect, the president diminished other threats.
For example, other rogue states, such as North Korea, have more advanced nuclear weapons programs than Iraq's. Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen are among the states with deeper ties to al-Qaida and other anti-American terrorist groups than Iraq's.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently told the Times that Hussein poses a less urgent threat to the United States than al-Qaida and Hezbollah. He also expressed concern that unilateral U.S. action against Iraq could leave Americans more vulnerable to terrorist reprisals at home and abroad.
Graham is as knowledgeable and thoughtful as anyone in Washington on issues of national security, yet his and other respected Democratic and Republican voices have been virtually ignored. The president has not directly addressed Graham's concerns, nor has he responded to the qualms expressed by many other military and security experts, including most of the brain trust of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, about the risks of unilateral action against Iraq.
Many crucial questions still have not been adequately addressed: Should U.S. forces becommitted to a major war against Iraq before the campaign to eradicate al-Qaida is completed? Is it in our interests to take on the entire burden of neutralizing Hussein if we fail to win the broad international support that was crucial to victory in 1991? Should Washington dismiss out of hand the possibility that a tougher regimen of inspections, sanctions and air patrols could continue to contain the Iraqi threat?
Other pragmatic questions remain: What sort of Iraq does the Bush administration intend to create after a successful war? Is its vision of democratic, pro-Western societies in Iraq and elsewhere in the region realistic? Would an attack against Iraq increase the risks of retaliatory terrorist attacks against Americans at home and abroad?
The president will get the congressional resolution he wants, but his task of building domestic and international support for action against Iraq is not nearly over. Our nation's security interests, and the president's political interests, are best served by building the broadest possible domestic consensus, and the broadest possible international coalition, for our Iraq policy. The president said Monday night that war is his last option. By working with our allies in good faith to exhaust all efforts to neutralize the Iraqi threat through measures short of war, the president can strengthen his case -- and reduce the risks and costs of war to the American people.
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