The Magazine

Democrats for Regime Change

From the September 16, 2002 issue: The president has some surprising allies.

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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THE PRESIDENT mulls a strike against Iraq, which he calls an "outlaw nation" in league with an "unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers and organized international criminals." The talk among world leaders, however, focuses on diplomacy. France, Russia, China, and most Arab nations oppose military action. The Saudis balk at giving us overflight rights. U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan prepares a last-ditch attempt to convince Saddam Hussein to abide by the U.N. resolutions he agreed to at the end of the Gulf War.

Administration rhetoric could hardly be stronger. The president asks the nation to consider this question: What if Saddam Hussein

"fails to comply, and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop his program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction."

The president's warnings are firm. "If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow." The stakes, he says, could not be higher. "Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."

These are the words not of President George W. Bush in September 2002 but of President Bill Clinton on February 18, 1998. Clinton was speaking at the Pentagon, after the Joint Chiefs and other top national security advisers had briefed him on U.S. military readiness. The televised speech followed a month-long build-up of U.S. troops and equipment in the Persian Gulf. And it won applause from leading Democrats on Capitol Hill.

But just five days later, Kofi Annan struck yet another "deal" with the Iraqi dictator--which once more gave U.N. inspectors permission to inspect--and Saddam won again.

OF COURSE, much has changed since President Clinton gave that speech. The situation has gotten worse. Ten months after Saddam accepted Annan's offer, he kicked U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq for good. We complained. Then we bombed a little. Then we stopped bombing. Later, we stepped up our enforcement of the no-fly zones. A year after the inspectors were banished, the U.N. created a new, toothless inspection regime. The new inspectors inspected nothing. If Saddam Hussein was a major threat in February 1998, when President Clinton prepared this country for war and U.N. inspectors were still inside Iraq, it stands to reason that in the absence of those inspectors monitoring his weapons build-up, Saddam is an even greater threat today.

But not, apparently, if you're Tom Daschle. The Senate majority leader and his fellow congressional Democrats have spent months criticizing the Bush administration for its failure to make the "public case" for military intervention in Iraq. Now that the Bush administration has begun to do so, many of these same Democrats are rushing to erect additional obstacles.

"What has changed in recent months or years" to justify confronting Saddam, Daschle asked last Wednesday after meeting with President Bush. Dick Gephardt wants to know what a democratic Iraq would look like. Dianne Feinstein wants the Israeli-Palestinian conflict settled first. Bob Graham says the administration hasn't presented anything new. John Kerry complains about, well, everything.

Matters looked different in 1998, when Democrats were working with a president of their own party. Daschle not only supported military action against Iraq, he campaigned vigorously for a congressional resolution to formalize his support. Other current critics of President Bush--including Kerry, Graham, Patrick Leahy, Christopher Dodd, and Republican Chuck Hagel--co-sponsored the broad 1998 resolution: Congress "urges the president to take all necessary and appropriate actions to respond to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs." (Emphasis added.)

Daschle said the 1998 resolution would "send as clear a message as possible that we are going to force, one way or another, diplomatically or militarily, Iraq to comply with international law." And he vigorously defended President Clinton's inclination to use military force in Iraq.

Summing up the Clinton administration's argument, Daschle said, "'Look, we have exhausted virtually our diplomatic effort to get the Iraqis to comply with their own agreements and with international law. Given that, what other option is there but to force them to do so?' That's what they're saying. This is the key question. And the answer is we don't have another option. We have got to force them to comply, and we are doing so militarily."