The Magazine

The Baghdad Democrats

From the October 14, 2002 issue: David Bonior and Jim McDermott have created a headache for their party.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IT'S A RARE POLITICAL MOMENT when Terry McAuliffe says no comment. Yet McAuliffe, the garrulous chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said just that last Wednesday at the Brookings Institution after a speech by Al Gore. Asked about the trip to Baghdad taken by three of his fellow partisans--Representatives David Bonior, Jim McDermott, and Mike Thompson--McAuliffe was nonplussed.

"Have we issued anything on that?" he asked DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri, who shook her head.

"I don't think we have," he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

"We handle the politics, and leave those comments to elected officials," Palmieri explained. "But nice try."

Problem is, the elected officials aren't saying much either. Bonior was until recently the second-ranking Democrat in the House, and yet it's nearly impossible to get Democrats to say anything about his and the others' trip to Baghdad.

But if other Democrats aren't talking about the Baghdad tour, Bonior and McDermott themselves won't shut up. And the more they talk, the more scrutiny they invite.

The controversy ignited on September 29 when Bonior and McDermott appeared from Baghdad on ABC's "This Week." Host George Stephanopoulos asked McDermott about his recent comment that "the president of the United States will lie to the American people in order to get us into this war."

McDermott didn't backpedal at all: "I believe that sometimes they give out misinformation. . . . It would not surprise me if they came out with some information that is not provable, and they, they shift it. First they said it was al Qaeda, then they said it was weapons of mass destruction. Now they're going back to and saying it's al Qaeda again." When Stephanopoulos pressed McDermott about whether he had any evidence that Bush had lied, the congressman replied, "I think the president would mislead the American people."

An American official floating unsubstantiated allegations against an American president during a visit to Baghdad would be troubling enough. But McDermott compounded his problem by insisting, despite its twelve years of verifiable prevarication, that the Iraqi regime should be given the benefit of the doubt on inspections and disarmament. Said McDermott on "This Week": "I think you have to take the Iraqis on their face value."

But McDermott and Bonior only accept Iraq's more conciliatory statements at face value. They selectively ignore those statements by Iraqi officials defying the international community's demand for unfettered inspections. Even after Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan made clear that inspectors would not be allowed into presidential sites--some 12 square miles of Iraqi territory--McDermott claimed the Iraqi regime really wanted to be accommodating. "They have given us assurances that there will be unfettered inspections," McDermott said at an October 2 press conference he held with Bonior after returning from Iraq. "In the United States, we have a tradition, we have a Constitution that says if there's a bad person there, we give them due process and inspections is the due process in this example."

At the same press conference, McDermott and Bonior retrospectively revised the primary goal of their trip. (Thompson, who wasn't at that appearance, kept a relatively low profile both on the trip and after his return. He was the only one of the three to emphasize that Saddam Hussein, and not the U.S. government, bears responsibility for conditions in Iraq.) "First of all," said Bonior, explaining the objectives of the trip, "we wanted to impress upon the Iraqi government and the people of Iraq how important it was for them to allow unconditional, unfettered, unrestricted access to the inspectors." It was such an important point that he revisited it later.

"The purpose of our trip was to make it very clear, as I said in my opening statement, to the officials in Iraq how serious we--the United States is about going to war and that they will have war unless these inspections are allowed to go unconditionally and unfettered and open. And that was our point. And that was in the best interest of not only Iraq, but the American citizens and our troops. And that's what we were emphasizing. That was our primary concern--that and looking at the humanitarian situation."

But if the return of inspectors was the "first" and "primary" purpose of the trip on October 2, it wasn't quite as important on September 25. In the joint press release all three congressmen issued before their trip, posted on each of their websites, there were many stated goals, and plenty of criticism of U.S. saber rattling and pounding of war drums. But there was no mention of inspections at all.