Loyal opposition

March 20, 2003

AMERICANS WHO caught at least a portion of the British Parliament's debate on joining military action against Iraq may have found the experience oddly satisfying.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to stand in the well of the House of Commons and defend his policy in support of the venture against all comers.

Sure, some of the performance was theatrically staged. And yes, the Blair government used all manner of hardball tactics to defeat a challenge waged by dissidents in the PM's own Labor Party.

But at least at the end, there was a timely, clear-eyed decision made by the elected representatives of the British people to pursue what will inevitably be a risky and potentially dangerous course.

Quite a contrast from this bastion of democracy, where war is being launched on the basis of a 5-month-old congressional vote, and the Senate's top Democrat is pilloried for suggesting President Bush could have done a better job of avoiding it.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle merely said out loud what many Americans are thinking. His language was a bit indelicate, pronouncing himself "saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war, saddened that we have to give up one life" because of Mr. Bush's failure. But that's no worse than the brickbats House Majority Leader Tom DeLay hurled at President Clinton when he was using U.S. airpower to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo. (That's the same Mr. DeLay who called upon Mr. Daschle this week to shut up.)

Regrettably, our system of government does not allow for direct give-and-take between a president and lawmakers over his policies. Ideally, press conferences can provide a greater vista into presidential thinking. But not the kind President Bush held last week, where the reporters seemed little more than props at an event staged for Mr. Bush to deliver the message that the time for war was nigh.

Congress, particularly Senator Daschle, could have put Mr. Bush's policies to a much more rigorous test if it hadn't written him a blank check on Iraq last fall, in hopes of changing the subject back to domestic policy before the November elections.

To muster confidence in the nation's present course, Americans are now required to make a large leap of faith. President Bush long ago made a judgment call, mostly on his own, that he was determined to pursue regardless of whether he could convince other nations to join him.

Even as we hope for the best, there's no disloyalty in asking questions or pointing out when the emperor isn't wearing clothes.

If Congress is reduced during this conflict to no greater role than railing at the contrary French and changing the name of snack food in its restaurants, the British Parliament is going to look better than ever.

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