Sen. Byrd's indictment

July 21, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, routinely dismissed by his colleagues as if he were some embarrassing old uncle hidden in the attic, has broken loose again.

The 86-year-old part-time country fiddler has written a scorching appraisal of President Bush and his pre-emptive invasion of Iraq titled Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. It confirms the old tiger as Congress' staunchest and most outspoken defender of the Constitution.

Mr. Byrd's book embellishes the familiar scolding he administered to the president in the run-up to the war. Then he would wave the little volume of the Constitution in his breast pocket as he spoke and reminded the Senate of Article I, Section 8, empowering Congress (and nobody else) to "declare war."

At the outset of his new book, Mr. Byrd quotes the 2000 candidate Bush: "Let us reject the blinders of isolationism, just as we refuse the crown of empire. Let us not dominate others with our power -- or betray them with our indifference. And let us have an American foreign policy that reflects American character. The modesty of true strength. The humility of real greatness. This is the strong heart of America. And this will be the spirit of my administration."

Then Mr. Byrd observes: "It is hard to believe that the man who said those words is the same man who now sits in the White House."

As the Senate's constitutional expert, Mr. Byrd nags at other members of Congress for rolling over for Mr. Bush's resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Beyond that, he chastises them for swallowing whole the president's doctrine of pre-emption, which has escaped any serious congressional review to date.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Mr. Byrd writes, "stark and sweeping, the new `Bush Doctrine' turned the heat up in an already nervous world, taking us straight to the `doctrine of pre-emption,' and that was swampy soil indeed."

And in setting the nation on the course of what he called "a monumental struggle of good vs. evil," Mr. Byrd writes, "Bush's draconian `them' vs. `us,' `good' and `evil,' serves little purpose other than to divide and inflame. This is not the stuff of statecraft."

As for Mr. Bush's characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil," Mr. Byrd asks: "Did this administration know nothing of history? Could it not gauge the power of that word?" In casting the United States as "world supercop," the senator observes, "I do not recall anyone putting that question before the American people."

Mr. Byrd adds: "This doctrine of pre-emption claimed by Bush should have incited a major debate in the Congress and across the country. Radical, having no basis in existing law, this new foreign policy was dangerous in the extreme. ... This green and arrogant president had made a U-turn on our tradition of working with allies and exhausting diplomatic efforts. ... Our metamorphosis on the world stage from powerful, peaceful giant to swaggering Wild West bully, with little regard for cooperative agreements, sensitivities or diplomacy in general, means a different kind of world in years to come."

Mr. Bush's war resolution, he writes, "amounted to a complete evisceration of the congressional prerogative to declare war, and an outrageous abdication of responsibility to hand such unfettered discretion to this callow and reckless president. Never, in my view, had America been led by such a dangerous head of state."

As a result, Mr. Byrd says, "the power of Congress to declare war ... now lies in a tepid or dormant state."

His own Senate, Mr. Byrd says, "having handed Bush carte blanche by passing the Iraq war resolution ... wanted no more to do with the matter. It had washed its hands and taken an aspirin."

Mr. Byrd was one of only 23 senators who voted against the resolution.

Before writing this book, the senior West Virginian made more than 60 speeches on the Senate floor protesting Mr. Bush's war and was regarded by many of his colleagues as a bothersome crank. His book may well be similarly received, though he more than any of them can now say: I told you so.

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

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