Mikulski, Sarbanes defend their opposition to Iraq war

March 16, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BARBARA Mikulski says her office averages 600 calls a day. She is quite specific about the number. Paul Sarbanes says he's hearing the same kind of concern. Maryland's two U.S. senators say the message from constituents is loud and troubled and passionate: What started as a terrorist attack by Osama bin Laden should not evolve into America marching into war against Saddam Hussein on our own.

"It doesn't mean people are opposed to disarming Hussein, who's a bum," says Mikulski. "And it certainly doesn't mean they don't support U.S. troops. Their protest is about the Bush policy of going in without U.N. support and international legitimacy and burden sharing."

"No one's making a case for Hussein," says Sarbanes. "He's a bad fellow, and he's done bad things, and he's developing weapons of mass destruction. We have to address these things. But how? We've gotten inspectors into the country. We have military power there. He's been checked and contained. Let the inspectors do their work."

Both senators are careful with their language. As the Bush administration marches toward war in the Persian Gulf, and international tensions rise, so do accusations. In an extraordinary speech last month, the Senate itself was excoriated by one of its own, veteran Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Byrd accused his colleagues of "truly sleepwalking through history. ... This chamber is, for the most part, silent -- ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing."

Actually, there have been moments. Both Mikulski and Sarbanes have spoken against unilateral U.S. action. But in a vote last fall, the Senate gave authority to President Bush to declare war unilaterally. The vote was 77-23. Mikulski and Sarbanes were among the lonely 23.

But Byrd might have been hinting at something else: political fears that anyone not fully behind the White House might be perceived as unpatriotic in a time of impending war.

"I can't speak for the others," says Mikulski. "We each have to vote our own conscience. That's what I did when I was one of only 23."

"I think what Byrd was saying is that the Senate isn't playing its historical institutional role, and I think he's right on that," said Sarbanes. "We're getting people elected who think they're spear-carriers for the president, rather than an independent branch of government."

Thus, while protesters fill the streets of cities around the world, condemning what they call U.S. arrogance, those such as Byrd accuse Capitol Hill of pulling its rhetorical punches. It is not just this impending war, but the philosophy that attempts to validate it.

"The doctrine of pre-emption," Byrd said. "The idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future -- is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense."

Americans recall Pearl Harbor, which pushed the nation reluctantly into the greatest conflict in history. We do not go to war without clear and present danger. Byrd's point is: If the United States can attack without an imminent threat, why couldn't other nations do the same, and point to this country as the primary legitimizer of such an act?

"That's the relevant question," Sarbanes agrees. "In the future, maybe not too far off, some other country might launch an attack and say, `We're just following America's example.' There's plenty of trouble spots where this might occur."

Couldn't such a rationale also be used for acts of terrorism? Particularly with the United States preparing to launch attacks, couldn't terrorists say: We sensed an American attack coming "in the future" -- and then justify their acts by pointing to the new American policy, that "radical new twist." It appears to contravene international law and the United Nations charter. And it is being tested at a time of worldwide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our -- or some other nation's -- hit list."

"The pre-emption doctrine," says Mikulski, "has serious risk, and I'm not sure all of the consequences have been fully realized. If we can use it, it certainly gives other nations the excuse to use it."

In separate interviews, she and Sarbanes mention the troubles between India and Pakistan and the dangers of pre-emption there. "And they both have nuclear power," says Mikulski. "I think the criteria has to be the right of self-defense. You take action where there's a clear and present danger, and it is immediate and life-threatening. But that's not the case here."

"These are tough issues," says Sarbanes. "I don't deny that. But it's not enough to be strong, we have to be smart, too. When you're the predominant, by far, superpower in the world, you have to exercise that power in a prudent way. You need friends around the world. We can do the military part by ourselves, but not the reconstruction. And you can't do the war on terrorism by ourselves, that's for sure. We need the help of a lot of countries around the world. And right now, we're alienating a lot of them."

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