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The Career and Record of George Mitchell

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Bush's steps toward war, Mitchell said, had "upset the balance between resources and responsibilities, between interests and risks." He was angry that the partners in the anti-Saddam coalition -- all of them countries far smaller and far weaker than the United States -- weren't carrying as much weight as we were. "If there is to be war in the Persian Gulf," he said, "it should not be a war in which Americans do the fighting and dying while those who benefit from our effort provide token help." America should not "assume a greater burden and a greater responsibility than other nations with an equal or even greater stake in the resolution of the crisis."

Mitchell's solution was the "Mitchell-Nunn resolution," which authorized only economic sanctions against Iraq for a period of 18 months. The two senators cobbled the resolution together as a supposedly responsible alternative to Bush's imprudence. After all, Mitchell said,

War carries with it great costs and high risk: an unknown number of casualties and deaths; billions of dollars spent; a greatly disrupted oil supply and oil price increases; a war possibly widened to Israel, Turkey, or other allies; the possible long-term American occupation of Iraq; increased instability in the Persian Gulf region; long-lasting Arab enmity against the United States; a possible return to isolationism at home.

But the costs and risks Mitchell assessed so direly were unlikely to change if America continued to do nothing but exert diplomatic pressure and levy sanctions on Saddam Hussein. And as for the balance of burdens between America and its allies, Mitchell's analysis was utterly backwards. Had the Mitchell-Nunn resolution passed, the balance in the coalition would have worsened because our allies would have hedged their bets by appeasing Saddam. If America had felt compelled to fight after the 18 months were over, it would have had to fight alone -- and this scenario assumes there would even have been a military option left after the repercussions the Mitchell- Nunn resolution would have touched off. The greater likelihood, had Mitchell and Nunn won, is that Kuwait today would be the 19th province of Iraq.

Once the war began, Mitchell hastened to close ranks with the administration in a show of national unity. But in his reply to Bush's 1991 State of the Union address, he could not resist a little partisan assault on the president he had previously accused of being "almost nostalgic about the Cold War."

Despite his formal support for the war effort, he offered a litany of moral equivalencies to it. "Students massacred in China, priests murdered in Central America, demonstrators gunned down in Lithuania -- these acts of violence are as wrong as Iraqi soldiers' killing civilians," he said. "The President says he seeks a new world order. We ask him to join us in putting our own house in order. . . . If we can make the best smart bomb, can't we make the best VCR?"

In 1994, there was yet another Mitchell and Nunn resolution -- yet another alternative to strong action in the midst of yet another military crisis. The issue was whether to lift the arms embargo that was keeping the government of Bosnia naked before its Serbian enemies. Sentiment in Congress was running strong for lifting the embargo and arming the Bosnians. But the administration, fearful of friction with European allies and Russia, turned to Mitchell and Nunn to act on its behalf. They offered a substitute that would merely have asked the president to try to persuade the allies to agree to lifting the embargo. Since leaving the Senate Mitchell has ceased to carry water for Bill Clinton on Bosnia. The private International Crisis Group, of which he is now chairman, forthrightly criticized the fatally flawed elections that were held in Bosnia this year at the administration's insistence.

One issue on which Mitchell rose ever so slightly above partisanship while still in the Senate was human rights in China. In 1990 he introduced legislation to deny China "most favored nation" status unless Beijing began respecting the rights of its citizens. At the time, the New York Times said Mitchell was "trying to define sharp differences between the Democratic Party and the [Bush] Administration on China policy." Indeed, Mitchell and others continued to press the issue until Bush was forced in 1992 to veto the MFN bill.