Few voices challenge nation's march to war

September 16, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress have returned from their summer recess with the buzzing of nervous constituents in their ears over the prospect of going to war with Iraq, and many express severe reservations of their own. Yet where is any organized effort to prevent it?

A few back-benchers in the House who make up what might pass for a peace coalition talk of private conversations among a handful of their colleagues. But they acknowledge they have yet to enlist any congressional heavy-hitters to provide leadership.

One of them is maverick Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a seven-termer who still holds to the quaint notion that since the Constitution explicitly empowers only Congress to declare war, no president should be able to do so on his own hook.

But even Mr. Paul says that while President Bush "may be slowed up a little bit" by going to the United Nations, Congress, "when it comes to voting, will approve overwhelmingly" whatever war-making resolution he seeks. The reason, he says, is because the Democrats are afraid opposing it "will hurt them politically" in November and the Republicans think passing it "will help them politically."

Another voice in the wilderness is three-term Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is trying to round up fellow Democrats despite acknowledging that even with "a low-level buzz" of concern and reservations about what they would be voting on, many "don't feel they can stand up to the president" on a war issue. Says another Hill Democrat: "There's not much of an anti-war left in Congress anymore."

One problem for House Democrats is that Minority Leader Richard Gephardt has already given Mr. Bush strong backing for "regime change" in Iraq. A key Gephardt aide points out that his boss has specified that he favors it be done "diplomatically if we can, and militarily if we must," but that the first caveat is often overlooked. In any event, Mr. Gephardt seems unlikely to lead any charge against the president on invading Iraq.

The House Democratic whip, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, has repeatedly expressed reservations about a lack of persuasive evidence from the White House that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction and has the capability of delivering them. That clearly poses a hurdle Mr. Bush must clear to win over doubters, not only in Congress to but also at the United Nations.

In the Senate, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware, a Democrat, and ranking Republican member Richard Lugar of Indiana have sent the president a letter warning that "there is not yet a consensus" on the likelihood of Iraq using such weapons or giving them to terrorists. Nor is there one on whether Iraq can "be disarmed without the use of force." They cautioned Mr. Bush against going it alone against Iraq and urged him to follow his father's example of collective action in the Persian Gulf war.

Although Mr. Bush has said he will seek a resolution from Congress, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who held hearings this year on war powers, says the constitutional question "is not mooted" because he has doubts that Mr. Bush will accept serious congressional consultation. The administration, he says, is "playing a game of shifting justifications" for going to war.

Mr. Feingold and Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts say Mr. Bush has not yet made the case to the satisfaction of the American people and, in the face of a strong congressional inquiry and debate, may yet be deterred in favor of a more restrained solution.

In any event, a view seems to be taking hold on Capitol Hill that no major military action is likely to take place before the November congressional elections, even if Congress votes in the end to go along. Agreement on another try at U.N. inspections could buy time.

After a spring and summer of docile ignoring of this critical war-or-peace issue, Congress is finally coming face-to-face with it. And for all the reservations held about the wisdom, justice and good sense in opening a new, uncertain and costly front while the war on terrorism continues, there seems no great expectation in either party that the president's hand can be stayed indefinitely.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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