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Iraq: U.S. Debate Focuses On How, Not Whether, To Wage War

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The U.S. debate on whether to attack Iraq is intensifying. But even if prominent voices are stepping forward to urge caution, they are unlikely to thwart Bush's request for Congress to grant him broad powers to wage war against Iraq.

Washington, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The domestic U.S. debate on whether to attack Iraq is heating up amid a flurry of activity in Congress and pointed criticism of the White House from respected military men and top Democrats, including former Vice President Al Gore.

In a speech on 23 September in San Francisco, Gore emerged from weeks of silence on the Iraq issue when he gave what is perhaps his harshest critique of President George W. Bush since his controversial defeat by the former Texas governor in the 2000 presidential election.

Gore, who is considering another White House bid in 2004, warned that Bush risks severely damaging the U.S.-led war on terrorism by shifting its focus to Baghdad from its original target: the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, which is blamed for carrying out last year's 11 September attacks on the United States.

Gore said that by focusing on Iraq, Bush is seeking to deflect attention away from what he characterized as the fruitless hunt in Afghanistan for the leadership of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden. "I do not believe that we should allow ourselves to be distracted from this urgent task [the war on terrorism] simply because it is proving to be more difficult and lengthy than was predicted. Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another," Gore said.

Gore's remarks, which mirror comments made recently by retired senior U.S. military officials, as well as by a few lawmakers in Bush's own Republican Party, come as Congress holds a series of hearings on whether to go to war with Iraq and, if so, how to proceed in the conflict.

Although former U.S. officials and analysts weighed in on the Iraq issue over the summer, the congressional debate began in earnest just last week when Bush asked Congress to, as required by the U.S. Constitution, pass a resolution giving the president the broad authority to wage war whenever he sees fit, not only in Iraq, but anywhere in the Middle East.

James Lindsay, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, said it is normal for Congress to pick up the issue only now. "Congress is not designed to be a hypothetical debating society. Congress tends to focus on issues when issues become ripe. And it's clear that the question of Iraq is now becoming ripe," Lindsay said.

It's also clear, Lindsay said, that the Bush administration has been very adept at forcing its timing on Congress, many of whose members will be eager not to appear to differ too much with a popular wartime president before facing key mid-term elections on 5 November.

For that reason, the congressional debate is likely to end up being limited in its scope, arguing not so much about the merits of going to war, but about whether to go to war alone or with allies.

A case in point: Four former U.S. four-star generals testified on 23 September before the Senate Armed Services Committee. While none of them came out flatly against war, three strongly cautioned Bush to be patient and, in the words of retired General Wesley Clark, "do the hard diplomatic work" to win world support for any eventual conflict.

Clark, who led the 1999 war in Yugoslavia as NATO's top commander, said the United States must do all it can to defuse the perception in the Middle East that it is acting alone as an aggressor. He said United Nations support would give moderate Arab countries "cover" to back U.S. action on Iraq, as well as offer other benefits. "The more we can do to defuse that [negative perception], the more we can do to put [action in Iraq] in the context of international institutions and the support of governments in the region, the greater chance we have of reducing the recruiting draw of Al-Qaeda, following through with the successful postconflict operation in Iraq, promoting a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and promoting peaceful democratization in a number of moderate Arab governments," Clark said.

Gore also echoed some of those thoughts, saying the war on terrorism requires assistance from many countries to be successful -- a multilateral approach that would be jeopardized should Bush seek unilateral action.

But Gore's speech, Lindsay said, is still unlikely to have much of an impact on his fellow Democrats in Congress, who will be making their own political calculations on Iraq in light of the upcoming elections. In particular, they know that polls show most Americans support the president and the Republicans on Iraq, especially if action is taken with backing from the world community.

Moreover, some top Democrats, such as Joseph Lieberman, Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2002, and John Kerry, a Massachusetts senator seen as a likely presidential candidate in 2004, have already come out unambiguously in favor of attacking Iraq.

Lindsay made the observation that Gore's speech "doesn't resolve the political challenge facing Democrats on [Capitol] Hill." Right now, he said, the Democrats' challenge is that the Bush administration has framed Iraq as an issue of whether or not they are willing to support Bush in the war on terrorism. "And that creates tremendous political pressure for Democrats," Lindsay said.

But that pressure on the Democrats actually started on 12 September, when Bush made a speech at the United Nations in which he temporarily dismissed the idea that the United States would rather go it alone in Iraq. Instead, Bush said the United States would take matters into its own hands only if the UN failed to act to enforce some 16 UN resolutions violated by Iraq since 1991.

Bush's critics had little choice but to applaud his address, since many had been urging him to take precisely such steps and not to go it alone, as some administration officials had appeared eager to do.

Democrat Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, had been critical of Bush on Iraq. But after Bush's speech to the UN, he was warmer, suggesting that Congress would vote on the resolution giving Bush authority to use force before it pauses for the elections, which is exactly what Bush had been calling for.

Asked on 24 September about Gore's criticism, Bush brushed it off with a laugh and then said he believes Gore's fellow Democrats do not share his opinion. "I'm confident there are a lot of Democrats here in Washington, D.C., who understand that Saddam's a true threat to America. And I look forward to working with them to get a strong resolution passed," Bush said.

The question now, analysts say, is how strong a resolution Congress will give the president. Most suggest that the strong White House draft will be only slightly weakened, giving Bush most of the power he wants.

In that case, it could be the most open-ended authorization for the use of force since Congress gave sweeping powers to former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, opening the door to a broader Vietnam War that eventually cost tens of thousands of American lives and ended in defeat more than a decade later.