Features » October 11, 2002
Congress capitulates to Bush’s call for war
Why? Because the horrors of the 9/11 attacks produced a tectonic shift in our nation’s politics. The slow movement of the country’s political center of gravity to the right was given hugely increased momentum by 9/11 and its aftermath. It accelerated the Democrats’ drift toward the center—not just on foreign policy—and cowed a majority of the party’s incumbents into a fearful reluctance to confront head-on a deeply flawed but highly popular Republican president whose “crusade” against terrorism had already given him the Teflon aura of a “wartime” leader. All year long, the so-called opposition party has failed to oppose. So no one should have been surprised at the lop-sided vote in Congress for an unjustified war in Iraq.
What became unmistakably clear in the days before the vote, however, was the degree to which the Democratic congressional leadership, by falling into the trap so artfully laid for them months ago by Karl Rove and the rest of Bush’s political cabal, had connived in undercutting their own party’s chances of advancement.
When Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman raced to the White House to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dubya in the Rose Garden to announce their co-sponsorship of the administration’s war resolution, they did more than simply give Bush “the beautiful picture he wanted” for November (as George Will gleefully crowed on ABC’s This Week). Their dastardly deal with Bush also guaranteed that Iraq will continue to dominate the news right through Election Day, and thus suck the oxygen out of the bread-and-butter issues (the economy, Social Security, Medicare and the like) on which the Democrats had hoped to take back the House and preserve the Senate. Just as Rove had wanted.
Tom Daschle, too, fell neatly into the White House’s pocket when he decided to fast-track the war resolution, instead of waiting until after Election Day. The country was not clamoring for an immediate decision. In fact, all the polls showed growing discomfort with the notion of a war whose purposes—as described by Bush—seemed to change every week. Those same polls also showed that a majority of voters believed Congress, not the president, should play the deciding role in committing the country to war, as indeed the Constitution demands.
The strategic mistake of Daschle and Gephardt in agreeing to Bush’s timetable mercilessly truncated the congressional debate; and put a gun to the head of Paul Wellstone, forcing him to go on record with a vote against the war that may wind up costing him his seat (in any case, it will certainly be interpreted that way if he loses). And a Wellstone defeat could be the loss that costs the Democrats their one-vote Senate majority.
The irony is that the Daschle-Gephardt sellout, which green-lighted the shredding of the Constitution’s balance of power, came just as the savvy trackers at the National Committee for an Effective Congress concluded for the first time in months that the Democrats had “a glimmer—with the emphasis on glimmer—of a chance” to pick up 33 of the 55 battleground House races. “If the Iraq vote had been put off until after the election,” fumes veteran NCEC boss Russ Hemenway, “it’s just now become clear that the Democrats would have won the House. But with less than a month to go after the vote, that’s just not enough time” for the Democrats to get traction on domestic issues. And in any case, Iraq will continue to dominate the mass media at least until the U.N. Security Council makes its decision.
Moreover, now that Bush has what Bobby Byrd called “another Gulf of Tonkin resolution” in his pocket, he can play with war like a political yo-yo, throwing out new threats and heating up his rhetoric every time his popularity is menaced by another conflict-of-interest petro-scandal or the sinking economy, and then—most likely of all—saving the actual first strike to reignite jingoistic fervor and jump-start his 2004 re-election.
The Tom-and-Dick-and-Harry capitulation (Harry is Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic whip who managed the floor debate and voted for war) was most clearly denounced in the Senate by its president pro tempore, crusty West Virginia octogenarian Byrd. The Democrats’ one-time Senate leader rose the day after the Rose Garden sellout to proclaim his opposition to:
a unilateral, pre-emptive attack on a sovereign nation that is perceived to be a threat to the United States. This is an unprecedented and unfounded interpretation of the president’s authority under the Constitution of the United States—not to mention that it stands the Charter of the United Nations on its head. … What a shame! Fie upon the Congress! Fie upon some of the so-called leaders of the Congress for falling into this pit … this rushing to vote on whether to declare war on Iraq without asking why.
Returning again and again to the Senate floor, Byrd, in his historically erudite perorations—many of them ad-libbed—spelled out how the blank check for war risked fundamentally and permanently tipping the Constitutional balance of power to the president’s advantage—not just for little Dubya, but for all future presidents. The very character of our democracy has thus been threatened.
Byrd—like Dennis Kucinich in the House—also kept hammering away at the resolution’s depraved authorization of aggressive war. Teddy Kennedy finally joined him on that issue in the best of his major Iraq speeches. So too did gutsy Russ Feingold, who scornfully flayed Bush’s prime-time Cincinnati address as “a shoddy piecing together of flimsy evidence that contradicts the very briefings we have received’’ in linking Iraq to 9/11.
In the House, safe-seat Henry Waxman was one of many sellout liberals who followed Gephardt’s lead—even though he said his constituents’ mail and phone calls were overwhelmingly anti-war—on the grounds that it would send a message of “unity” to get the United Nations to act. But his fellow Californian, senior liberal George Miller, refuted that argument, saying, “the resolution suggests to the United Nations that they really need not act, because somehow the United States alone will take care of Saddam Hussein.”
By a significant majority, House Democrats wound up voting against the war (126 to 81)—a much larger no vote than anyone expected, and a stinging black eye for Gephardt. Grassroots sentiment was so massively against the war in a lot of districts that it turned the votes of many who were wavering and gave them spine. The Democratic leadership in both houses seriously misread the mood of their own party as well as that of the country.
Still, the world’s only hopes for avoiding a war with the most sinister long-term geopolitical consequences now rest in the hands of two of the world’s most notorious crooks: Vladimir Putin, KGB-trained spawn of the Russian kleptocracy, and Jacques Chirac, saved from prosecution only by the presidential immunity he won with re-election last year. Both Putin and Chirac, who have Security Council vetoes, can be bought off by Bush.
The purchase of Putin is well under way. The Financial Times reported on October 3 that the partly state-owned company Lukoil, which controls 68 percent of Russia’s $6 billion investment in Iraq’s oil fields (the world’s second-largest) has “been assured” by Putin that “it will be able to keep its huge stake” in Iraq if Saddam is deposed—a guarantee impossible without a secret deal with Washington. Putin’s veto threats at the United Nations are simply raising his price to include the $7 billion Iraqi debt to Russia, the security of Putin’s $40 billion oil-based trade deal with Iraq, and U.S. passivity when Putin invades nearby Georgia.
And the French are already waffling in public. To take just one example, on October 9, Le Monde—reporting a series of declarations by Chirac’s top political lieutenants, including his foreign minister—concluded that “the government appears to be preparing [French] public opinion for the use of force” once a deal is made at the United Nations.
Bush’s something-for-everybody Cincinnati speech gave an excuse to Democrats who wanted to jump on the war train before it left the station. As John Kerry said in explaining his decision to vote yes to give Bush carte blanche: “The administration … recognizes that war must be our last option to address this threat, not the first.”
Kerry, like Gephardt and Daschle and Lieberman, wants to be president, and this self-serving declaration was pure political pandering. But David Gergen (spinmeister to four presidents, both Republican and Democratic) nailed it right when he said on MSNBC that what Bush said in Cincinnati was “blunt, hardline … a prelude to war.” He added ominously: “The logic of the speech would suggest that Iraq is our first stop in the Middle East, not our last.”
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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. Hes a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.