No mandate for war

October 13, 2002

THANKS TO a rain-prolonged commute Thursday, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin had an extra hour to rethink his support for the resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq. The Baltimore Democrat concluded the language was too broad and voted against it.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Frederick Republican, was similarly troubled about the sweeping power being granted to the president and hopes Mr. Bush will return to Congress for a second vote before he actually uses it.

Mr. Bartlett swallowed his doubts and voted for the resolution anyway, he said, because he didn't want the United States to appear weak and vacillating in the eyes of the world.

As these Marylanders make clear, a look behind those large, bipartisan vote totals Mr. Bush racked up for his war resolution last week reveals support that is actually shallow and shaky.

The president is wrong to conclude those votes mean that "America speaks with one voice." He makes a graver mistake if he assumes he has won a mandate for war.

What's more, Americans certainly haven't signed on to the notion of a lengthy postwar Japan-style occupation of Iraq, as the administration seems to be planning.

If there is one prevailing sentiment in Congress on this issue, it is ambivalence. The decision came easily only to the most staunch Bush loyalists in the GOP and dyed-in-the-wool, anti-war Democrats.

For lawmakers in the middle, their votes came down to a judgment call that easily could have gone the other way.

They weighed the potential boost the vote might give to United Nations efforts to force Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction. They worried over a CIA report that suggested a U.S. move against Iraq might trigger exactly the sort of chemical or biological attack that Mr. Bush says he is trying to prevent. They analyzed how much faith they had in Mr. Bush to chart what could be a very treacherous course.

Of course they all made the political calculations of how a vote either way would affect the upcoming congressional elections.

Many reported that calls and e-mails from constituents were running heavily against the resolution. But party strategists advised that polling showed the safest course for vulnerable Democrats was to vote for it.

Delaying tactics in the Senate ultimately gave way to practical concerns. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who had been withholding his support in hopes of narrowing the scope of the resolution, decided to cut his losses. Hours after the Senate voted early Friday morning, Democrats staged an "economic summit" in hopes of shifting attention back to an issue that favors them.

Mr. Bush should read last week's vote as an endorsement of his efforts to rally an international campaign to force Mr. Hussein to disarm. Beyond that, Congress and the American people need to be fully informed and consulted every step of the way.

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