The Magazine

Fair Weather Bipartisanship

From the March 17, 2003 issue: The Democrats were all for unity against Saddam--when Clinton was president.

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"DEMOCRATS LAMBASTE BUSH ON IRAQ." So declared the front page headline in the Washington Post the morning after the president's press conference. Leading the attack are Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and his House counterpart Nancy Pelosi, who are "escalating their criticism of Bush," the Post said, "because they think war is imminent and because Russia, Germany and France seem more opposed to it." Shortly before Bush's press conference, Daschle claimed that the administration is "rushing to war without adequate concern for the ramifications of doing so unilaterally or with a very small coalition of nations."

It is unusual, to say the least, that congressional Democrats would attack the president--with more than 200,000 American troops already deployed in the Persian Gulf--"because they think war is imminent." And it is astonishingly inconsistent. Forget the fact that Daschle voted with an overwhelming congressional majority last fall to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Many of the most outspoken critics of President Bush's policy in Iraq were the most vocal supporters of bipartisan unity on those occasions when President Clinton used, or threatened to use, force against Saddam Hussein. In early September 1996, Saddam attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq. Although it was just two months before a presidential election, many Republicans supported him, and Democrats insisted on unity. Daschle in particular was adamant. As he said then,

I hope Saddam Hussein and those who are in control of the Iraqi government clearly understand the resolve and determination of this administration and this country. This may be a political year, . . . but on this issue there can be no disunity. There can be no lack of cohesion. We stand united, Republicans and Democrats, determined to send as clear a message with as clear a resolve as we can articulate: Saddam Hussein's actions will not be tolerated. His willingness to brutally attack Kurds in northern Iraq and abrogate U.N. resolutions is simply unacceptable. We intend to make that point clear with the use of force, with the use of legislative language, and with the use of other actions that the president and the Congress have at their disposal.

Daschle also insisted on unity a year and a half later, when there was another showdown with Saddam. On February 11, 1998, with troops amassed throughout the Persian Gulf and the threat of war evident, Daschle declared that Saddam "has to agree that there will be compliance with international law and the agreements that he signed in 1991. Period."

Daschle wasn't finished. "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? . . . The answer is, we don't have another option. We have got to force them to comply, and we are doing so militarily."

Two weeks after that, Kofi Annan brokered a compromise agreement--another "last chance"--with Baghdad. In announcing his deal, Annan said that he "could do business" with Saddam Hussein. When Trent Lott criticized the United Nations secretary general for saying he could "do business" with a man responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, Daschle rose quickly to Annan's defense. His concern was familiar: American unity.

I don't know what purpose it serves by attacking one another at this point. I mean, if ever there was a time for us to present a unified front to Iraq, this ought to be it. . . . Let's not . . . send all kinds of erroneous messages to Iraq about what kind of unity there is within the community.

As the Post's account makes clear, Daschle is no longer concerned about American unity. When I asked him last month why he now opposes policies he supported under President Clinton, he claimed: "At that time, of course, President Clinton enjoyed broad-based international support. It is essential for us to consult with the international community now."

But the "small coalition of nations"--34 at last count--that Daschle finds underwhelming is larger than the one that supported Clinton in 1998. Then as now, France, Russia, and China opposed doing anything about Iraqi intransigence. And then, as now, several allies supported our efforts. Most of the countries that supported President Clinton in 1998 support President Bush today--the notable exception being Germany.

The difference comes in support from allies in the Gulf. In 1998, of Saddam's neighbors only Kuwait backed strikes against Iraq. Our current effort has been endorsed not only by Kuwait, but Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Big difference. Even Jordan, which didn't back President Clinton in 1998 and sat out the first Gulf War, has made noises about supporting Saddam's ouster.