Democrats Fall in Line

Much of the discussion of America's confrontation with Iraq has focused on domestic opposition to a war. The picture we get is of a political stage severely divided.

There is indeed tension inside the Bush administration: Colin Powell, secretary of state, prefers diplomacy to escalation. But Republican and Democratic opposition is relatively muted.

The real story about America is the consensus within US leadership on the matter of toppling Saddam Hussein.

This unity becomes clear when we consider the debate in the run-up to the Gulf War. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US deployed thousands of troops to scare Mr Hussein into retreat. But as the prospect of military action increased, any number of lawmakers mobilised in opposition, either to call for Congressional approval or to block action outright. The tone and content of their arguments were more sceptical or confrontational than those of arguments heard today.

On the Republican side, a number of leaders had hesitations about the project. As Bob Woodward recalls in his book The Commanders, both Senator Robert Dole and Richard Lugar fought for explicit congressional approval, with Senator Lugar telling President George Bush it was better to determine early whether Congress was behind him. From within the administration, then, as now, Mr Powell called for caution.

On the Democratic side, the opposition was public and outright. Richard Gephardt, then House majority leader, repeatedly challenged the very notion of military action, even going so far as to threaten blocking the president's funding for the war.

Nor was Mr Gephardt alone. Fifty-three House Democrats and Tom Harkin, a Democrat senator from Iowa, moved one step further: they went to court to ask for an injunction to stop the president from initiating an attack on Iraq. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, then co-chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, voiced his "uncertainty" about an anti-Iraq mission; he later voted "No" in the decisive vote to authorise offensive action, along with Senators Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn and Joseph Biden, all leading Democrats. Only 52 senators supported authorisation.

In the House, meanwhile, 183 members of Congress voted to deny authorisation - a minority but a sizeable one. This split reflected public opinion - at certain moments, at least: a USA Today poll of November 1990 showed only 51 per cent of respondents supported Mr Bush's handling of the Iraqi challenge.

Things look a little different today: the president enjoys stronger support from the public and objections tend to be about detail rather than overall thrust. A New York Times poll at the weekend showed 68 per cent of Americans supported Mr Bush on Iraq.

On the Democratic side, there has been much sympathy for the notion that aggression may be necessary, particularly from prominent Democrats. Thus, for example, the same Mr Gephardt who led the opposition last time around is today a vocal advocate.

Just last month, even before it became clear that the White House would seek congressional approval of military action, Mr Gephardt, now House minority leader, said: "President Bush was right Saturday to say we are fighting a new war and will have to be ready to strike when necessary." A few months ago Mr Gephardt laid out his support in a long speech at the Wilson Centre, saying, "I share President Bush's resolve to confront head-on the menace".

Of course, many Democrats have been silent on the matter, spending their stage time assailing the president on the economy. But this should be interpreted in the context of the forthcoming congressional elections. It tells us one of two things. The first is that the Democrats think that they can win by differentiating themselves on the economy and lose by differentiating themselves on the war. The second is that they support the showdown but do not want to highlight that support, since that would also help Republicans.

Among Republicans, to be sure, there are the dissenters: Gen Powell; Dick Armey, House Majority leader; and Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser. But it is important to note, that, excepting Gen Powell, these critics are not big "players". Mr Armey probably feels free to express his opinion because he knows it does not matter much: he will retire this winter. Gen Scowcroft's power base exists - he heads the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board - but it is not a mighty one.

In sum, both houses of Congress are likely to vote more heavily in support of presidential authority than they did in 1991.

This should not be surprising. For one thing, Democrats remember what a political loser opposition to the Gulf war turned out to be. Their prognostications of thousands of US casualties proved wrong. The two important members of the party who broke early from the pack and backed the administration in launching Desert Storm - Senator Al Gore and Senator Joseph Lieberman - were rewarded with the chance to run for president and vice-president six years later.

The real motive, though, behind Democratic support, and public support generally, is the recognition that this war must be fought if necessary. The lesson that US leaders have taken from September 11 is that it is time to stop trouble that emanates from the Middle East. Washington views al-Qaeda-type terror and a nuclear or chemical weapons attack from Iraq in the same class: as threats that must be smothered.

Europe is divided over this proposition and may seek a mirror of its divisions in the US. But an accurate review of America's leadership reveals a picture of striking unity.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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