Joe Conason's Journal

On Iraq, Bush chooses partisan sniping over congressional cooperation. And there's a good chance he'll regret it.

By Salon Staff

Published September 13, 2002 7:03PM (EDT)

Don't imagine, just remember
The message from the White House following the president's U.N. speech -- which set forth no explicit timetable -- is that Washington will only wait "days and weeks" for the Security Council to act. His rhetorical nod to the rest of the world was short and curt; political exigencies quickly trumped any pretense of consultation.

What Bush and his associates appear to despise even more openly than multilateralism is bipartisanship, though both should undergird any responsible use of force. This morning, the president's true attitude about building a consensus for action was revealed. He doesn't much care, so he didn't hesitate to explicitly politicize the question of war. Indeed, he seized the first opportunity to mock Democrats who believe that a joint congressional resolution should be debated after the Security Council approves (or refuses to approve) a new resolution on Iraq. "I can't imagine an elected United States -- elected member of the United States Senate or House of Representatives saying, 'I think I'm going to wait for the United Nations to make a decision,'" said Bush. Lapsing into those folksy Texas cadences that are meant to signify down-home common sense, he continued, "It seems like to me that if you're representing the United States, you ought to be making a decision on what's best for the United States. If I were running for office, I'm not sure how I'd explain to the American people -- say, vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I'm going to wait for somebody else to act."

Actually, Bush doesn't have to "imagine" Congress waiting to act after the United Nations -- because that's exactly what happened the last time the U.S. went after Saddam Hussein in 1991. Knowing that he may not have read his father's memoir of the Gulf conflict, let's quickly refresh his memory: The Iraqi army crossed the border into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. The U.N. first authorized the use of military force three weeks later, and on Nov. 29 the Security Council warned Baghdad to vacate Kuwait within six weeks or face an allied offensive. The Senate vote affirming the president's authority to use offensive force against Iraq didn't take place until Jan. 12, 1991 -- three days before the Security Council's deadline.

The sequence of events leading up to the Gulf War permitted the president and his aides to make their case for American intervention, mobilize public support and win a narrow victory in the Senate. (That's what responsible Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, such as Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, have urged this president to do all summer.)

While George H.W. Bush had three months to do so after the Iraqi invasion began, he didn't even attempt to ram through a congressional resolution before the U.N. acted -- even though his party faced losses in that November's midterm elections. In fact, that President Bush took care to avoid any appearance of exploiting the Mideast crisis for electoral advantage. "I don't think even the most cynical would ever suggest that a president would play politics with the lives of American kids halfway around the world," said the senior Bush a week before Election Day 1990.

That cynical notion has been hard to ignore lately, with the minions of Gen. Rove boasting how clever they were to wait until September to "market" war. Yet the caution of the Democratic Senate leadership is understandable. They have no wish to undermine the president on this issue, even if they believe the administration is irresponsibly rushing toward war without firm support from allies and the public.

Meanwhile divisions persist within the administration. Despite his own misgivings, Colin Powell has taken up the difficult task of organizing an international coalition behind an American presidency that is widely disliked and distrusted abroad. But it is the president's job to convince Americans that a threat he rarely emphasized until earlier this year is now so awfully urgent that something must be done before Nov. 5.

The veteran pollster Daniel Yankelovich warned this week that public backing for military action virtually disappears under close scrutiny -- that is, when the real-world situation is mentioned by pollsters. He notes that "the New York Times poll shows that the 68 percent [pro-war] majority shrinks to 35 percent when people are given the alternative of giving 'the United Nations more time to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq.' Most dramatically, Gallup reports that when people are asked whether they would support a war if we had to go it alone, public enthusiasm for war drops off a cliff, with only 20 percent -- a mere one out of five Americans -- endorsing a unilateral initiative."

Yankelovich concludes: "The clearest implications of these poll results is that the administration should not deceive itself into believing it has won the indispensable level of public support needed to wage a preemptive war in the Middle East. "

As Biden said yesterday, "We should all just calm down a little bit. Some issues are so serious that they should in fact be taken as far out of the realm of politics as possible. This is one of those issues."

A nice thought but not a likely prospect -- not with Republican leaders seeking to distract voters from domestic issues, where they are running away from their own Social Security proposals and have no popular agenda to offer. And not with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the war faction so eager to manifest their contempt for the Senate, and for the very concept of informed public consent before war is declared. Their approach to this issue is not so different from the steamrolling style that helped them "win" Florida in 2000.

The White House and the Senate leadership both know that a war resolution is likely to pass whenever it reaches the floor, including votes from at least a few vulnerable Democratic incumbents -- such as Max Cleland of Georgia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jean Carnahan of Missouri (along with Cleland's hawkish, Bush-friendly Georgia colleague Zell Miller). The dilemma faced by the Democrats is whether to accept that reality, and quickly negotiate the passage of a war resolution -- or stand on principle for an orderly, responsible process before embarking on a desert adventure that could cost many American and Iraqi lives.

The irony is that Democratic leaders are prepared to help Bush build public support for the use of American-led, multilateral force, if and when that becomes necessary to disarm Saddam permanently. They want to see proof that the Baghdad regime is an immediate threat. They want to hear a plan for military victory and for the rebuilding of a postwar Iraq. They aren't eager to write a blank check, but they are fully cognizant of the continuing dangers posed by the Iraqi dictatorship. The president has spurned their cooperation for the sake of unilateral policies and partisan politics -- a decision he may someday regret.

[1 p.m. PDT, Sept. 13, 2002]

Salon Staff

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