Democrats ask tough questions about war

March 04, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - With public approval sky-high for President Bush and his conduct of the fight against terrorism, Democrats have not been doing much criticism of America's most unorthodox war - until now.

Grumbling is finally being heard about the president's expansion of objectives from capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network to broader goals such as ensuring the long-term stability of a new Afghan regime, not to mention going after Mr. Bush's "axis of evil."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia started it the other day, expressing severe reservations to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz about what he called "an expanding agenda" in the war. Noting reports about the United States "creating an army in Afghanistan," Mr. Byrd asked, in effect, where the war was heading, and at what cost.

"We went in there to hunt down the terrorists," the Senate's senior Democrat said, "but we do not know where Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar are hiding. We've bombed the caves of Afghanistan back into the dark ages. ... There have been a lot of bodies, I'm sure, brought out of those caves, but we don't have bin Laden. If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going to keep us going beyond doomsday. How long can we afford this?"

The next day, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota weighed in with the observation that unless bin Laden, former Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and other al-Qaida leaders are caught, "we will have failed."

On Mr. Bush's requests for war spending, he said, agreeing with Mr. Byrd, "somebody's got to ask the tough questions."

And Democrat Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman from North Dakota, accused the Bush administration of "bootstrapping" the Afghanistan task to seek "dramatically higher defense spending" than previously sought.

Republicans immediately accused Mr. Daschle, mentioned as a 2004 presidential prospect, of playing politics with the war.

"How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush when we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field?" huffed Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.

This transparent attempt to do a little politics playing himself is not likely to cool the Democrats' determination to oblige the president to justify his war budget. Mr. Byrd will still want better answers than he got from Mr. Wolfowitz when he asked him: "Where are we? What's it going to cost? What's the end game here?...When will we know we've achieved victory and that we need to get out of Afghanistan?"

The best Mr. Wolfowitz could do in response was to say the $30 billion the Pentagon has projected for the war's cost in this fiscal year was only that, "a prediction of the unpredictable."

Of $7.4 billion spent so far, he said, "I would guess that roughly $6 billion of that total is Afghanistan [expenditures]" and the rest for "air defense deployments in the United States" flying protective cover over American cities.

The question in Afghanistan under its new leadership, he said, was how large a homegrown army had to be to ensure the terrorist liquidation work already done is not undone.

"We do not want to see Afghanistan become again in two or three or five years ... a haven for the same group of terrorists or another group of terrorists," Mr. Wolfowitz said.

By developing such an indigenous armed force in the country, he said, "I think that we'll enjoy a much safer world five or 10 years from now, maybe sooner. But I don't think much sooner than that, by persevering on this war on terrorism ... I can't tell you when we will have won."

But Mr. Byrd, who at age 84 has a record of nearly half a century on Capitol Hill in support of a strong national defense, is also a stalwart defender of congressional prerogatives.

He reminded Mr. Wolfowitz that "Congress has control of the purse strings. ... We've got to begin asking some questions."

It's a process that is certain to become more disputatious if the war does drag on, or goes beyond Afghanistan.

"We seem to be good at developing entrance strategies," Mr. Byrd told the president's man, "and not so good at developing exit strategies."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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