WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., has become a leading congressional critic of the Bush administration's actions in the Persian Gulf, urging sanctions instead of war.
Sarbanes' views received national attention Wednesday when he sharply questioned administration actions while Secretary of State James Baker was testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee.
Extensive media coverage of the hearing and Sarbanes' subsequent comments on the MacNeil-Lehrer news program that night assured a large audience. Many of his constituents heard -- and evidently liked -- what he said.
After the hearing, Sarbanes' office received about 100 calls, most supporting his position, spokesman Bruce Frame said yesterday.
Frame said Sarbanes was expressing the same views before the hearing, but in less-publicized situations -- "in meetings with people" and interviews.
Sarbanes' colleague, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., does not sit on the foreign affairs panel and has been less openly critical of the policy. Although she said Sarbanes made some "excellent points," Mikulski is not yet convinced sanctions will work.
"Before I make a decision about whether economic sanctions go another year, I want to see what else is brought out at the hearings," she said in comments passed along to reporters by a spokesman, Mike Morrill.
But Mikulski believes President Bush has not made a strong enough case for military action and needs congressional approval to go to war, Morrill said.
Sarbanes challenged the administration on several fronts, making clear he believes the buildup of offensive forces and the United Nations' adoption of a Jan. 15 deadline are mistakes that could lead to war.
"How long after Jan. 15, if Saddam does not leave Kuwait, do you think you can go before you have to commit military force to drive him out of Kuwait?" Sarbanes asked Baker. "You had a policy that was working. The sanctions were squeezing him, and obviously they were going to squeeze him more day by day. Instead, we've abandoned that policy and we've shifted off -- off to a course now which I think is going to take us into conflict."
Sarbanes urged that economic sanctions be given much more time to work and insisted that the Constitution requires Bush to seek congressional authorization to initiate war.
Referring to former defense and military officials who have counseled patience, Sarbanes said: "They are strong, effective arguments, and it seems to me that the administration has not yet answered them."
Sarbanes also said Saudi Arabia should use more of its "windfall" from higher oil prices to compensate nations that are suffering because of oil price increases. On another issue, Sarbanes said Bush must discuss "the aftermath" of a war.
"Are we going to occupy Iraq?" he said. "Are we going to have to continue to station American forces in the area in order to bring some order out of chaos, subject them to terrorism, to guerrilla warfare?"
At times, Sarbanes' voice rose in apparent anger, and he said to Baker, "Mr. Secretary, I didn't mean to get quite this worked up about it, but . . . there's no more grave issue than this one."
Baker responded forcefully, telling Sarbanes "that right out my window at the State Department I look every day at Arlington National Cemetery, and I understand very, very well what's at stake here."