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.
Instead there was much talk of "gaining insight into the humanitarian challenges another war on Iraq would have on innocent Iraqis and the dangerous implications of a unilateral, preemptive strike on U.S. national security."
It's reassuring to know that these congressmen were concerned about our national security, even if the source of their concern was our president rather than the brutal dictator with weapons of mass destruction the United States is trying to stop. What apparently didn't concern the congressmen was the damage their trip might do abroad to any U.S.-led effort to deal with Saddam. Or any difficulties they may have created for U.S. efforts to fashion a friendly post-Saddam Iraq.
EVEN BEFORE the Baghdad boys left Iraq, media outlets throughout the Middle East gleefully highlighted divisions in the U.S. government and the travels by the "antiwar" congressmen. The Iraq Daily, for example, published by Saddam's Ministry of Information, printed daily updates of the trip and posted them in English on their website.
For example, a September 30 report says, "the members of the U.S. Congress delegation has underlined that this visit aims to get acquainted with the truth of Iraq's people sufferings due to ongoing embargo which caused shortage in food and medicine for all Iraqi people." (That article appeared next to a report on Saddam's continuing financial support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers or, to use the paper's formulation, "intrepid Palestinian uprising martyrs." Also in that issue is an article by American white supremacist Matthew Hale, "Truth About 9-11: How Jewish Manipulation Killed Thousands.")
Two days earlier, on September 28, the Iraq Daily carried this report: The "U.S. Congress delegation saw a woman supplicating to Almighty God to revenge from criminal Bush and U.S. administration for the criminal crimes he and his administration perpetrated against Iraqi children through preventing them from the simplest life necessities due to the continuation of the unjust sanctions on Iraq."
On September 27, viewers of Iraqi Satellite Channel Television learned the following (this translation comes from U.S. government sources):
"Three U.S. Congressmen arrived in Baghdad this morning on a visit lasting several days. The delegation will hold several meetings with Iraqi officials and members of the Foreign Relations Committee at the National Assembly. They will also visit hospitals to see the suffering caused by the unjust embargo and the shortage of medicines and medical supplies. Congressman Jim McDermott told reporters upon arrival at Saddam International Airport that the delegation members reject the policy of aggression dominating the U.S. administration."
The video then showed McDermott talking, with a voiceover translation in Arabic. Here is what Arabic-speaking audiences heard from McDermott:
"We are three veterans of the Vietnam War who came over here because we don't want war. We assert from here that we do not want the United States to wage war on any peace-loving countries. As members of Congress, we would like diplomatic efforts to continue so as not to launch any aggression. We will visit children's hospitals to see the negative impact of the sanctions imposed on Iraq. We hope that peace will prevail throughout the world."
So how does it feel to be used as a propaganda tool against your own country? McDermott, who was asked that question by CNN's Jane Arraf when he was still in Baghdad, said it feels fine. "If being used means that we're highlighting the suffering of Iraqi children, or any children, then, yes, we don't mind being used."
And while some Democrats may not be so happy about McDermott and Bonior being used, few are willing to say so. Senator John Breaux lamented McDermott's "overstatement" on the question of the president's veracity. House minority leader Dick Gephardt, who helped the Bush administration craft a White House- friendly congressional resolution, was equivocal about the Bonior-McDermott affair: "I don't agree with his views on some of the facts, and obviously we may not be in agreement on his conclusion about what to do about those facts. But every member, as I've said over and over again, has to reach their own conclusion."
A reporter followed up. "Mr. McDermott implied that the president could not be trusted and Mr. Saddam Hussein could be trusted. That's gotta evoke some sort of feeling within you as to the properness of that comment."
"I don't have all that was said and I'm not here to parse over every word," said Gephardt. "I don't, I don't, I do not agree with his views of the facts, some of the facts, and obviously probably don't agree with his conclusion about what to do with the facts. But that would be the case with a lot of the members of this caucus. And of the other caucus. And that's why we're here."
But at least Gephardt said something. THE WEEKLY STANDARD contacted several other prominent Democrats for comment on the Bonior-McDermott apostasy, including Bill Clinton, Reps. Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi, and Sens. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman. The only comment we received came from Senator Kerry's spokesman David Wade, who said simply that his boss "disapproved of McDermott's comments."
Republicans say they will continue to raise the issue until Democratic leaders speak out against McDermott and Bonior. "Why haven't Democrat leaders denounced McDermott's odious words? Every American is free to speak their mind, but hurling reckless charges from hostile soil strays over the edge," says House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
Will other Republicans, either in the House or in political campaigns, follow DeLay's lead? Can the GOP hang Bonior and McDermott around the necks of other Democrats? As Election Day approaches, count on hearing more about the Baghdad Democrats.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.