Pelosi's frustration

May 10, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - No Democrat seems more frustrated over her party's challenge to mount a more effective voice against President Bush's Iraq war policy than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in the history of Congress.

Having loudly raised her own criticism of the Iraq invasion before it began and ever since, the California liberal leader finds herself stymied by the Democrats' minority status, which prevents the calling of congressional investigations into Mr. Bush's rationales for the invasion and the chaos in its wake.

"The Republican leadership [in Congress] is a complete extension of the White House," she says, and as a result, "we will never have a clear airing of what's going on" in the Bush war policies. The Republican majority in Congress, she laments, has made Democratic efforts to force any real congressional review of the war and its aftermath impossible.

Ms. Pelosi cites a recent House Republican insistence that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in briefing Republican and Democratic House members, do so separately. That, she says, was an indication of the partisanship that dominates discussion of the war in the House.

That the country is in the midst of a presidential election, Ms. Pelosi says, has persuaded many Republican colleagues to withhold doubts about the conduct of the war. "If it were not election time," she says, "Republicans would be more forthcoming," noting as a rare exception the critical observations of Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

On the anniversary of President Bush's carefully staged landing in a flight suit on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Pelosi's frustration is obvious as she says in her leadership office in the Capitol: "The mission has not been accomplished."

It is an observation that is self-evident as Americans continue to die in Iraq in numbers dwarfing those killed in combat at the time the president uttered those now embarrassing words that appeared on the huge banner erected on the carrier for his much-photographed arrival.

Ms. Pelosi's own words fairly drip with dismay that public opinion polls, while indicating increasing voter concern that the country is heading in the wrong direction in Iraq and in foreign policy generally, also show that Mr. Bush's personal appeal remains strong.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee before becoming Democratic leader, Ms. Pelosi was part of the "Gang of Four" House and Senate intelligence committee leaders who received pre-war briefings to which most other members of Congress were not privy.

It was on the basis of these briefings, she says, that she based her strong and outspoken opposition to Mr. Bush's resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq and his rationale for invading Iraq. "This administration did not know what it got into," she says, and ignored information it had on what to expect.

Just as important, Ms. Pelosi says, "this administration took its eye off the ball instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan," where the Taliban and al-Qaida are at large and active. By diverting millions of dollars from Afghanistan to plan for the Iraq invasion, she says, the Afghan effort has suffered, and with it the greater war on terrorism.

With the Democratic voice in Congress stymied, the burden for expressing the party's position on Iraq falls more heavily on its presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry. But Ms. Pelosi expresses frustration also about the manner in which the Republicans have painted Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper on Iraq for supporting the Bush war resolution and then criticizing the conduct of the war.

Mr. Kerry, like the rest of the country, she argues, relied on Mr. Bush's "unsubstantiated evidence" of the Iraqi threat and spoke out against him when "the bright light of truth" finally revealed the president's misrepresentations. It is the president, not Mr. Kerry, who should be criticized now, Ms. Pelosi insists.

That is the challenge both Democratic leaders face as they strive to make the case against the war's architect and its unanticipated outgrowth - a case that may well determine the result of this fall's election.

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

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