Accessibility links

U.S.: Democrat Who Backed Iraq War Defines Differences With Bush In Campaign

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from the northeastern state of Connecticut, strongly supported President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. But now Lieberman, who hopes to challenge Bush for the presidency next year, is distancing his foreign-policy position from Bush's. As RFE/RL reports from Washington, Lieberman is also distinguishing himself from other potential candidates for the White House.

Washington, 5 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A prominent member of the U.S. Democratic Party, who hopes to be the major challenger to President George W. Bush in next year's election, is distancing himself from Bush's foreign policy even though he strongly supported the war in Iraq.

Senator Joseph Lieberman was his party's candidate for vice president in the 2000 presidential election campaign and, as a result, is well known to Americans. But his bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 has not yet drawn broad support.

Polls show Lieberman with about the same level of support as Howard Dean, the former governor of the state of Vermont who until recently was viewed as a long-shot for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But analysts say Dean's message -- vehement opposition to the Iraq war and improving health care in the country -- has captured the imagination of many in his party who see Bush as using the nation's power arrogantly and catering to the wealthy.

While Dean tends to appeal to the Democrats' left wing, Lieberman's appeal is to what he calls the party's "center" -- for example, supporting the war in Iraq but deploring the handling of it since the fall of Baghdad.

Along with large majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, he voted in October 2002 in favor of authorizing Bush to take military action against Iraq, if the president deemed it necessary.

During an appearance on 4 August at the National Press Club in Washington, Lieberman restated that position, but criticized what he called Bush's lack of planning for Iraq after Hussein's downfall.

"I supported the war [in Iraq]. I thought it was the right thing to do. I feel the world is safer, and America's safer, certainly the region is safer, and the Iraqi people are particularly safer with Saddam Hussein gone. But I have been stunned by the lack of preparedness of the Bush administration for dealing with post-Saddam Iraq," Lieberman said. Lieberman mounted a broad attack on what many observers see as Bush's strongest area of expertise: national security. His criticism included what he characterized as an ineffectual response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The Democrat said Bush at first resisted the idea of creating a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Bush eventually agreed to the idea, but Lieberman said he did not allow it enough resources to do its job properly.

He also accused Bush of not sharing enough federal money with local governments to pay for more municipal police, firefighters, and medical personnel -- the people in charge of the first response to a terrorist attack.

"This president, George W. Bush, by his actions and his inaction, by the difference between his rhetoric and the reality of his policies, and by his indifference to the real human challenges we face, has proven that he is the wrong man to lead America to a safer and better future," he said.

Lieberman also criticized U.S. diplomacy concerning Iraq -- not before the war, but after the fall of Hussein. He said it is vital for the Bush administration to improve relations with European allies who opposed the invasion of Iraq, especially at a time when conventional combat has shifted to a guerrilla war targeting American and British soldiers.

If he were president, Lieberman said, there would now be soldiers in Iraq from several countries, including allies in NATO.

"I would have reached out before the war and said, particularly to our allies in NATO, 'OK, you didn't support us in the war. We're upset about that. But we need your help now in securing and rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq, so please join us.' That still hasn't happened, and we are paying a dear price for it," he said.

Lieberman's attack on Bush's foreign policy was not limited to Iraq. He also accused the current administration of essentially ignoring the Middle East peace process from the time it took office in January 2001 until mid-summer of 2002 and allowing mutual attacks by Israelis and Palestinians to escalate nearly beyond control.

"The president and his administration left the field of negotiations for two years. Nothing good happens when America is not involved between Israelis and Palestinians or Israelis and Arabs generally," Lieberman said.

While sharpening the definition of his differences with Bush, Lieberman also drew a clear line between himself and Dean, who has the support of some Americans, many of them Democrats, who not only disagree with Bush, but are angry about his policies.

This is something of a mirror image of national politics in the United States a decade ago, when it was Republicans who in 1994 used growing anger at Democratic President Bill Clinton's policies to shift control of both houses of Congress from the Democrats to the Republicans for the first time in four decades.

Two years later, however, Clinton himself withstood that anger and won re-election over his Republican rival, Bob Dole.

Former U.S. Representative Bill Frenzel says this supports a theory about American politics that anger alone is not always a good strategy for seeking the White House.

Frenzel, a Republican who represented the northern state of Minnesota from 1971 to 1991, agrees that the anger of some Democrats is comparable to that of Republicans in the 1990s. He tells RFE/RL that the anger is so strong that, as he put it, "you can almost taste it."

Frenzel says angry party members tend to be from the left or right fringes of their parties, and they tend to be activists. And it is activists, he says, who usually influence a party's nomination process, either in state caucuses or by taking part in pre-election votes known as primary elections.

But Frenzel says securing a presidential nomination is only half the battle: "The trouble is, when you get done with that, you have to have a candidate who can attract the broad center of America, which is where most of us live [politically]. If Governor Dean strays too far to the left, it's going to be hard for him to come back [and win the election]."

Frenzel says the politics of anger can be the successful basis of a presidential campaign in America if there are enough voters whose anger is personal -- such as a vast number of people thrown out of work. But less personalized anger -- or "hypothetical" anger, as Frenzel calls it -- is probably not enough to carry a candidate to the White House:

"If [the anger is] hypothetical -- you don't like what the U.S. is doing in the world and you're kind of mad about it -- I don't think that anger is going to work, I don't think that stretches to the White House."

So far, Frenzel says, Dean has been appealing to people whose anger is hypothetical, and he believes a candidate like Lieberman with a broader, more centrist message has a better chance of mounting a credible challenge to Bush next year.

He says that if Dean's supporter's succeed in securing the Democratic Party's nomination for their candidate, then Dean will have to broaden his message to include more than just the party's left wing, or Bush will defeat him soundly.