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Wavering Democrats straddle war divide

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

If there were an opposition party in Washington -- and there isn't -- the serious questions now being raised by Democrats about going to war with Iraq would have been asked before Congress gave President Bush a virtual blank check last October to use military force to disarm Saddam Hussein. It apparently never occurred to them that Bush intended to cash it.

The prowar vote, just a few weeks before the midterm elections, was intended to reassure voters that Democrats were not wimps and could be trusted on national security issues. The voters saw this political calculation for what it was. Republicans recaptured the Senate and held on to the House. Some Senate Democrats have come to regret their rush-to-war votes, but with the party as fractured and incoherent as ever on how to disarm Iraq, there is little appetite for reopening the debate.

With war appearing imminent -- even inevitable -- Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle now says it never occurred to him that the president, after winning his war resolution in Congress, might go marching into Baghdad without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. Daschle was shocked! shocked! that an administration with a record of acting unilaterally on everything from global warming to nuclear treaties would act unilaterally against Iraq.

"Our situation has put us into a more isolated position than I ever anticipated," Daschle said last week.

Daschle claims that Democrats have found common ground on at least one issue -- the administration's diplomatic failures, which he said threaten to do great harm to the United Nations, NATO and U.S. relations with its allies around the world. Well, it's good to see Democrats have found something to criticize about Bush's war policy, even if it comes too late to make much of a difference.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted for the war resolution last October. However, the growing antiwar sentiment on the streets of this nation and abroad has caused her to have second thoughts. She says she would like to see another congressional vote on the war, as Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia have called for, but Senate Democrats don't want to reopen that debate or admit that they acted too hastily -- and for political reasons -- in giving Bush the authority to wage war last fall.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted against the original war resolution. He told Congressional Quarterly last week he doesn't believe a second vote would change anything and might even make matters worse. "I think that a second vote would reinforce the unilateralist approach that the administration is taking, and therefore I very much oppose it," Levin said. "I don't want to do anything which would simply reinforce the go-it-alone approach that they're taking."

At this late hour, Democrats are pressing the administration to provide more details on what the war will cost, how long it will last and what a postwar Iraq will look like. And they are urging the president not to give up on diplomacy, to seek greater international support for military action and to tone down his cowboy rhetoric.

This political straddle is typified by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. She says she supports the president "100 percent" on the need to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction but she expresses concerns about the way he is going about it. So it's not the prospect of a "shock and awe" war that bothers Democrats -- just Bush's diplomatic style.

Most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls who voted for the war resolution are now trying to make peace with the party's antiwar activists by playing the same game. The presidential candidates who voted for the resolution -- Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have indicated they will support a war with or without U.N. backing if it comes to that. Kerry, however, faults the president for his "belligerent unilateralism" that has alienated countries whose support America needs in fighting terrorism, rebuilding postwar Iraq and containing the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Meanwhile, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, another prowar presidential hopeful, tells audiences "we must lead the world instead of merely bullying it."

To understand why Congress has virtually folded on the issue of war with Iraq, Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker says you "need only compare the doings on Capitol Hill with (the British) Parliament."

Baker wrote in Newsday last week: "It was . . . a jarring sight to behold last Wednesday a substantial number of Labor Party back-benchers in Parliament vocally defying Prime Minister Tony Blair on his Iraq policy, while the U.S. House of Representatives somnolently debated whether the image of Monticello ought to be removed temporarily from the reverse side of the nickel and replaced with an image honoring the explorers, Lewis and Clark."

That about says it all. Tony Blair must envy George W. Bush for his weak-kneed political opposition.

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