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The Career and Record of George Mitchell

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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"Sure, it's not going as well or as fast as every"one would like, but it's . . . an alternative to K.Jconflict. The participants are still talking. . . . You take a step forward, a step backward. You go back and try again. What is the alternative? There is no alternative."

These words sound like they come straight from the mouth of Warren Christopher, the outgoing secretary of state and author of the stupefyingly titled Diplomacy: The Neglected Imperative. Actually, they were spoken by George Mitchell -- the man whom Christopher is reported to be pushing as his successor -- about his efforts to settle the conflict in Northern Ireland. They suggest the ways in which the former Senate majority leader may simply be the second coming of Warren Christopher to Foggy Bottom, albeit with a tad more personality and a somewhat sharper partisan and liberal edge than Christopher.

He would be a curious choice. During his 14 years in the Senate, Mitchell displayed little abiding interest in foreign policy: He never secured a seat on the foreign affairs or armed services committees. His most notable foreign- policy moment came in 1991, when he led the opposition to a declaration sought by George Bush authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Mitchell argued that "diplomatic pressure" and economic sanctions could compel Saddam Hussein to disgorge Kuwait. This and his voting record in the Senate show that Mitchell shares Christopher's deep faith in the powers of diplomacy and his weak appreciation for that which undergirds effective diplomacy, namely military power.

When he became majority leader in 1988, the New York Times described Mitchell as "a solidly liberal lawmaker" and said that "in choosing Mr. Mitchell, Democrats rejected the notion that they should use the majority leader's race as an opportunity to distance themselves from the Eastern liberal image that some believe cost their party the White House." An excited Ted Kennedy said Mitchell's victory constituted "a welcome signal that the liberal and progressive ideals of the Democratic Party have broad support among Senate Democrats from all parts of the country."

In National Journal's annual review of senatorial voting patterns, Mitchell was firmly in the liberal wing. Indeed, in five of his 14 years as a senator, he was included in the group with the most liberal record on key foreign- policy votes.

In short, Mitchell is no "New Democrat," but a believer in the old-time religion from the days when voters refused to give Democrats dominion over the nation's security. Compare his record with that of Sam Nunn, the quintessential New Democrat. Of the 61 foreign-policy votes Congressional Quarterly studied during Mitchell's 14-year tenure, he opposed Nunn about half the time -- an unusual difference of opinion for two senators from the same party.

The sharpest distinctions between them were on defense issues and Central America. Nunn often supported aid to the government of El Salvador and to the Nicaraguan contras in their battles against communism; Mitchell did not. Things changed with the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, Mitchell and Nunn worked hand in glove on two major issues: the Persian Gulf and Bosnia. The story of their collaboration does neither man credit.

From the moment U.S. forces were deployed in the Gulf, Bush administration spokesmen argued that, as commander in chief, the president could send soldiers into battle without a vote by Congress. Mitchell bitterly disputed this on the constitutional grounds that Congress had to authorize any such action. But when Bush sought such authorization, Mitchell fought tooth and nail to deny it.

Mitchell argued that "this is not a debate about American objectives" -- this was the "no one hates Saddam Hussein more than I do" part. No, he and the administration differed about "how best to achieve" their common goals. " Should we start with war?" he asked, after five months in which Bush sought to compel Iraq's departure from Kuwait without having to fire a shot.