Quieting the homefront

Republicans equate mild war criticism with "aid and comfort to our enemies."

Published March 1, 2002 11:38PM (EST)

As Democrats launch their first criticisms of the Bush administration's war policies, several Republicans and conservative pundits have launched an all-out attack designed to frame virtually any criticism of the war on terrorism as illegitimate.

In a press conference Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., defended fellow Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., who criticized the Bush defense budget and conduct of the war on terrorism. Asked whether he thought the success of the war had been overstated, Daschle replied:

"I don't think the success has been overstated. But the continued success I think is still somewhat in doubt. Whether we continue to succeed depends on whether we get the right answers to the questions Senator Byrd was posing yesterday. ... I will say that at this point, given the information we've been provided, I don't think it would do anybody any good to second-guess what has been done to date. I think it has been successful. I've said that on many, many occasions. But I think the jury's still out about future success, as I've said."

He also suggested Thursday that it was necessary for the United States to find Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders for the war on terrorism to be considered a success.

Daschle's comments are noteworthy -- Democratic criticism of the conduct of the war has been extremely mild to date. But the points he made are well within the bounds of legitimate debate.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., however, fired back almost immediately by attacking Daschle's right to criticize the Bush administration's prosecution of the war. "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field," Lott stated. "He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united." Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called Daschle's remarks "thoughtless and ill-timed." Meanwhile, Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., head of the Republican House Campaign Committee, claimed Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country."

Conservative pundits also rallied to the sounds of the battle. Pundit and former Gingrich press secretary Rich Galen claimed that Daschle, Byrd and Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., "have decided to declare war on President George W. Bush's handling of the war against terrorists," while Andrew Sullivan suggested that Daschle's comments marked the start of a campaign "to undermine the war in order to gain some political traction against the president."

Daschle's relatively mild statement, questioning the future conduct of the war and the administration's request for a large increase in defense spending, is the sort elected representatives have every right to make. Yet instead of even addressing Daschle's comments, his critics question their very legitimacy, suggesting that any criticism of the direction of the war is out of bounds and divisive as long as the war is ongoing. Since the conflict is open-ended and likely to expand, this logic would shut down debate indefinitely.

The campaign against Daschle's comments has already had a powerful impact. Daschle's spokeswoman defensively clarified Daschle's comments later in the day, insisting that, "In fact, the transcript [of Daschles remarks] ... indicates no criticism of President Bush or his campaign against terrorism." And in a sign of how even professional journalists can be taken in by the spin of the moment, Peter Jennings suggested in an ABC News.com e-mail that Daschle's statement represents "the sudden disintegration of loyalty and bipartisanship vis-a-vis the war on terror."

Davis' and Lott's suggestions that criticism of the conduct of the war undermines American resolve and aids the enemy are baseless attempts to bully their opposition into silence by suggesting that all such criticism is divisive. Sadly, given Daschle's reaction and Jennings' e-mail, it appears to be working already.

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By Bryan Keefer

Bryan Keefer is the co-editor of Spinsanity.

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