Friendly fire

September 27, 2002

IT'S MOST disheartening to see that the U.S. military action against Iraq seems to be starting out with political fragging of our own guys.

For President Bush to charge that Senate Democrats are "not interested in the security of the American people" needlessly cheapens what should be a highly serious and thoughtful debate about a matter with potentially grave consequences.

In answer to a blistering response from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the White House hastened to explain that Mr. Bush wasn't talking about the Iraq debate when he leveled his broadside. He was complaining about Democratic resistance in the Senate to his proposal for creating a new Department of Homeland Security.

But that doesn't excuse him. He just went too far in protesting the Democrats' determination to protect federal workers' rights that his legislation would dismantle.

Is it fair to say the Democrats are kowtowing to their labor union backers on the issue? Sure.

Does that mean they are "not interested in the security of the American people?" Of course not.

Challenging the patriotism of Democrats who question administration policies is becoming an increasingly common tactic of Mr. Bush and his Republican allies.

And it's a highly effective one. Very few Democrats have dared to openly quarrel with Mr. Bush's determination to wage war on Iraq, even though lawmakers of both parties privately express their doubts about the wisdom of pre-emptive action.

Nor are the Democrats having much success in the negotiations aimed at putting some curbs on the wide-open war resolution Mr. Bush has asked Congress to pass.

Yet most of them are expected to vote for it, anyway, and hope for the best.

It takes rare courage to stand up against a proposition that is moving with the gale force of Mr. Bush's war on Iraq. And there is no reward for political courage. History teaches that those who have taken such stands prior to past conflicts were often labeled cowards, traitors or simply fools.

So far, the most prominent Democrat to criticize Mr. Bush's war plans is former Vice President Al Gore, whose political career was left in such shambles after the 2000 debacle that he has little left to lose.

None of this inspires confidence in Americans who are hoping against hope that their elected representatives would only undertake such a dangerous enterprise as a military offensive with the utmost care and caution.

For Mr. Bush, care and caution should begin with his speech. His creative use of the English language is sometimes funny and oddly endearing. But presidents need to pay closer attention to their own words, and to their meaning.

Careless allegations against opposition leaders as the nation prepares for war only lend credence to dark suspicions that it may be Mr. Bush who is actually more concerned with domestic politics than with the security of the American people.

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