The Magazine

Not So Innocents Abroad

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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IN LAST WEEK'S EPISODE, much of respectable Washington was aghast that the Bush White House had "politicized" the possibility of war by questioning the patriotism of congressional Democrats who opposed the president's Iraq policy. Respectable Washington was mistaken about all this. First off, war is an intrinsically and legitimately political issue, partisan debate about which is nothing to be aghast over. And while it would indeed have been beyond the pale for the president and his men to smear Democratic dissent as per se disloyal, no such smear had actually been forthcoming. Neither, for that matter, had any serious Democratic dissent emerged to begin with; "What about our domestic economy?" hardly constitutes a muscular and forthright argument against the use of U.S. military force overseas. Still, confusion reigned and little plot twists like these went unresolved.

Just before the credits rolled, however, a potentially clarifying development unexpectedly appeared in the script: Three Democratic House members took off on a "fact-finding" trip to Baghdad and Basra, where two of them, David Bonior of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington, at a series of site visits helpfully arranged by Iraqi functionaries, repeatedly and vigorously endorsed even the grossest falsehoods of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party propaganda. In other words, the Bonior-McDermott delegation (Rep. Mike Thompson of California was largely silent throughout the trip and now plainly wishes he'd stayed home altogether) violated a fundamental protocol of American government. To wit: Elected federal officials traveling abroad, especially when they are guests of an officially designated terrorist state, are not supposed to attack, and thereby undermine, the national security policies of the United States.

So. Here at last we had, whatever else might be said about it, a genuine, unqualified rejection of renewed war in the Persian Gulf. Rejection of a distinctly partisan cast. And rejection so extreme in manner and substance as to challenge the ordinary connotative boundaries of the term "loyal opposition." Presented, courtesy of Reps. Bonior and McDermott, with such a rich, steaming stew of fresh and relevant material, surely both the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership would find reason, and feel eager, to settle their still echoing controversy over war politics and patriotism?

No, it hasn't happened. Oh, sure, a number of congressional Republicans--and innumerable spokespundits for the Party of Journalism--have pronounced on the thing. Most of which commentary has focused, understandably, on some peculiar advice McDermott has offered about whom Americans can confidently trust in a dispute between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. McDermott, a 14-year veteran of the House, has long been known on Capitol Hill for below-average intelligence and an addiction to intemperate speech. But this time the honorable gentleman has clearly outdone himself.

On the eve of his mission to Baghdad, McDermott was heard to suggest that President Bush would probably lie to us in order to justify another attack on Iraq. And after he arrived in Baghdad, pressed on this point during a satellite interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, McDermott refused to budge: "I think the president would mislead the American people." By contrast, Saddam Hussein would not mislead the American people. "I think," said McDermott, again using that word very loosely, that "you have to take the Iraqis on their face value" when they promise, for the umpteenth time, finally to cooperate with an effective United Nations weapons-inspection program.

In defense of these unusually stupid remarks, McDermott cites Lyndon Johnson's Tonkin Gulf resolution--and claims to have earned from that experience a special entitlement to disbelieve any such presidentially asserted casus belli: "Both David [Bonior] and I were in that war." Not so his critics, McDermott contends: "Many people who talk about war have never seen it, they've never participated in it"--and they therefore fail to appreciate the battle-tested authority with which he exercises an "American right" to dissent from Bush administration policy. Dissent which must be voiced or "it's not a democracy" anymore.

It is true, sort of, that McDermott and his friend "were in that war." Each man wore his nation's uniform during the late 1960s, McDermott as a psychiatrist at Long Beach Naval Station and Bonior as an Air Force cook stationed elsewhere in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. But it is not at all true that denunciations of their recent visit to Iraq are principally grounded in ignorance about the horrors of combat. After all, no more prominent man has any more forcefully complained about Bonior and McDermott's adventures in Baghdad than Sen. John McCain, who, though he was nothing so exalted as a cook or a psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, nevertheless seems adequately qualified to call it "reprehensible" that two members of the House would dare "give comfort to the enemy."

In any case, Bonior and McDermott's status as veterans should be quite beside the point. As should their undisputed "American right" to play Ezra Pound to Saddam Hussein's Benito Mussolini. Their trip was an outrageous breach of official responsibility. Outrageous, in fact, to an extent only fractionally reflected in the random chatter it has so far occasioned. McDermott calling President Bush a liar on a television hookup from Baghdad was the least of it, really.

In Basra, he and Bonior as much as charged the United States with war crimes in connection with the first, 1991 invasion of Iraq. Asked by reporters about Saddam's suspected pursuit of an atomic bomb, Bonior replied that "the only nuclear piece that we've been able to detect here...is an incredible, unconscionable increase in leukemias and lymphomas for children that have been affected by this, the uranium that has been part of our weapons system that was dropped here." Bonior's (approving) reference was to Iraqi allegations that trace residues from U.S. explosive shells hardened by low-radiation "depleted uranium" have widely poisoned Persian Gulf War battlefields. We have done a "horrendous, a barbaric, horrific thing," Bonior said, and "the world community needs to know about it."

The world community already knows about "it," actually. At least 13 Western governments have sent scientific teams to analyze the environmental health effects of depleted-uranium munitions employed in wartime. So has the U.N. And the World Health Organization. And the European Commission. And the British Royal Society. And no such inquiry has ever produced a speck of evidence to substantiate the charges David Bonior would like to resuscitate on behalf of "the children" in Iraq.

On behalf of the grownups now running the government of Iraq, Bonior and McDermott have offered some startlingly aggressive character witness. At any point during their tour, did the congressmen see signs that Saddam Hussein might pose an imminent threat to America and its people? Mr. McDermott: "I mean, after the 7th of December, 1941, that wasn't any question. There was a clear reason [for war]. What is the clear reason here?" Could it be that such a "reason" has been hidden from the congressmen's view? Mr. McDermott, again: "We've gone and looked at diarrhea clinics, we've looked at hospitals taking care of kids who have cancer and so forth, and we've looked at water filtration plants. We have had complete access to anything we want here, and they have not kept us from anything we asked to do." Isn't it true, though, that the Iraqis are insisting that international observers be barred from more than 1,000 government installations, on 12 square miles of total property? Those are mosques, explains Mr. Bonior: "They don't want to be having knocks on the door during prayer." And if they turn out not to be mosques? If it turns out Iraq maintains a weapons of mass destruction program, would a U.S.-led preemptive assault be justified then? Mr. Bonior, again: "No. I wouldn't support military action in this endeavor at all."

Even as McDermott and Bonior were still on the ground in Baghdad, issuing their all's well cry, Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan was telling the world, by way of Lebanese television, that his government reserved the right to launch a preemptive first strike--against American and allied targets, military or civilian, anywhere in the world. Where war is concerned, Ramadan promised, "we'll decide when it happens." Iraq "has the right to confront the aggressors on its land and in any place the aggressors are found. An enemy is an enemy....Any American, British, or Zionist interests on Arab land or within reach of Arabs, wherever they are, I consider as legitimate."

Ramadan's threat does not apply to Reps. Bonior and McDermott, presumably.

Come to think of it, they've gotten off relatively easy here at home, too, bad reviews from the talk shows and people like McCain to the contrary notwithstanding. The White House, widely assumed to be on watch for any hint of Democratic resistance to war with Iraq, and eager to use it as partisan ammunition in the coming midterm elections, has largely declined to comment on, much less criticize, either man. And the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, as recently as two weeks ago ferociously indignant over any suggestion that home-team spirit against the Iraqi regime might be lacking in its ranks, has uttered nary a peep about Bonior and McDermott--who say the home team is guilty of infanticide, among other things.

The Bush administration makes a wise choice to remain silent here, we think; Bonior and McDermott do not deserve the dignity of presidential notice. But the Democratic party makes a mistake, and does itself a disservice, by continued reluctance publicly to discipline these, its very wayward lambs. Granted, arriving at a coherent position, yea or nay, on the president's Iraq policy has proved a tricky political problem for Democrats, one they have notably failed to solve. But nervous bewilderment does not constitute disloyalty; no one can fairly say that the Democratic party has apologized for Saddam Hussein. David Bonior and Jim McDermott are freaks. They do not speak for their party. And their party, it seems to us, should say so.

--David Tell, for the Editors