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.