A leading political ally of U.S. President George W. Bush is urging the president not to take unilateral military action against Iraq. Yesterday's speech by Senator Chuck Hagel comes as Congress is preparing to debate a resolution that would give approval to possible military action against Iraq. In addition, congressional elections will be held in five weeks. The Iraq debate has overshadowed issues on which Bush and other members of his party could be politically vulnerable, such as the sagging U.S. economy.
Washington, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A prominent member of U.S. President George W. Bush's Republican Party urged the president yesterday to make every effort to win the support of other countries if he decides to take military action against Iraq.
Speaking at a private luncheon in Washington, Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska) said Bush faces a task greater than merely defeating Iraq's military and toppling its president, Saddam Hussein.
Hagel, an outspoken member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush also must ensure that the people of Iraq have a fair and representative government after Hussein is gone, and that U.S. soldiers and taxpayers must not bear the entire burden of war with Iraq. "Diplomacy is essential for creating the international political environment that will be required for any action we take in Iraq, especially how we sustain a democratic transition in a post-Saddam Iraq," Hagel said.
The senator's comments come as both the Senate and the House of Representatives are about to begin debating a proposed resolution that would give congressional approval to any action that Bush decides to take against Iraq, including military action.
Hagel said it is important for the Bush administration to understand that America's view of Iraq is not shared by other countries, even U.S. allies.
Bush has told the United Nations that it must act decisively to enforce its resolutions regarding Iraq, in particular, the resolution requiring Iraq to get rid of any nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Bush and his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, say Hussein has been pursuing such weapons, especially since UN weapons inspectors were last in Iraq in 1998.
In a speech to the UN General Assembly on 12 September, Bush said these weapons of mass destruction have made Iraq a threat to the Middle East and to the world. He said that if the United Nations did not act to disarm Iraq, the United States would do it alone.
In his remarks yesterday, Hagel said it is more important for Washington to persuade its friends to take joint action against Iraq than to chide the United Nations and take unilateral action. "American power alone cannot carry the day in a project of this magnitude. We need our allies, we need our friends, we need our partners, because we cannot afford to fail," Hagel said.
This is not the first time Hagel has urged the Bush administration to proceed with caution on Iraq. And he is not the only leading politician to urge caution. On 23 September, former Vice President Al Gore -- a Democrat whom Bush defeated for the presidency in the 2000 elections -- also urged Bush not to take unilateral military action against Iraq.
On 27 September, another prominent Democrat, Senator Edward Kennedy, gave a speech in Washington that also questioned the wisdom of making war on Iraq. Kennedy said it appeared Bush was rushing into military action, and added that, "War should be a last resort, not a first response."
On 28-29 September, three Democrats from the House of Representatives arrived in Iraq on an independent fact-finding mission. One, James McDermott (Washington), said Bush should await the results of the UN weapons inspectors before even considering military action. Senator Trent Lott (Republican, Mississippi), the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, criticized McDermott's comments and urged the three representatives to leave Iraq.
Despite these questions, the administration's Iraq policy enjoys much support in Congress, mostly from Republicans, but also from several Democrats. However, few of these supporters have been vocal in their support, leaving that to Bush himself and his senior aides, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney.
This exchange of views about war with Iraq has been a bit tentative so far but is likely to become more focused this week as the Senate and the House are expected to begin debate on a resolution that would give Congress's approval to whatever action Bush may choose to take against Iraq.
The debate begins five weeks before the congressional elections. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 Senate seats will be at risk on 5 November, and the political leadership of both houses is at stake. The Democrats now hold a one-seat majority in the Senate and could take over the House if they gain six seats on election day.
As a result, the debate on war with Iraq will be important to the makeup of the next Congress, which will be seated in January. And one political analyst, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told RFE/RL that Bush has carefully introduced the Iraq issue to coincide with the congressional election campaign in hopes of maintaining Republican control of the House and winning the party's control of the Senate. "It's not an accident that this came up during the election season, and the Republicans in the White House have used it very cleverly to take control of the election campaign. And now Iraq, rather than a bad economy or a fallen stock market, is the major issue of the campaign," Sabato said.
Sabato noted that presidents and their supporters in Congress often take the political blame for the country's economic troubles.
Despite what he calls clever political timing, Sabato warns observers not to be overly cynical about Bush's political motives in pressing for war now. He said all successful politicians are adept at gaining politically from important issues without ignoring the national interest. He said Bush is no exception. "It would be wrong if war was actually being waged for a domestic political purpose. This is a legitimate issue like all other issues that are on the table for discussion, and like all the other issues, it has political effects, and the players tend to use those political effects when they can to their own benefit," Sabato said.
Sabato said the debate among members of Congress so far has not been simply Democrats against Republicans. He noted that Hagel is not the only Republican to question Bush's policy, and that several Democrats, most prominently Zell Miller (Georgia), have given full support to Bush's policy.
But Sabato said the Republicans appear to be more unified in their support for Bush. The Democrats, he said, seem not to have formed a cohesive stand on the issue. As a result, he said, any move by Democrats to vote against the resolution supporting military action will probably fail.