GEORGE W. BUSH HAS HIS CONGRESSIONAL approval now, but I don't think he has his nation's support for war with Iraq.
It's not as if he hasn't made a number of cases for going to war: September 11 has shown us to be more vulnerable to terrorists; Iraq harbors terrorists, if not al Qaeda terrorists, although al Qaeda terrorists have been known to frequent Baghdad, or at least its hospitals; Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, although not nukes, though it has been trying to get nukes, though it hasn't got 'em yet, but sure would like 'em.
The only excuse for so many separate cases justifying our armed intervention against Iraq is that no one case has stuck. Bush has not convinced the American people -- or, I suspect, a majority of members of Congress -- that Iraq poses an imminent threat to the United States or its closest allies or its interests. Hardly anything demonstrable has changed within Iraq since September 11; what's changed is America's sense of its vulnerability. But even that has not translated into unequivocal public support for war.
Indeed, the polling leading up to the vote authorizing the use of force on Iraq showed that public opinion was growing more, not less, skeptical of the Iraqi threat. And some NPR polling of all voters as to what kind of presidential candidate they'd support -- a Republican hawk, a Republican dove, or their two Democratic counterparts -- showed 35 percent support for the Democratic dove, against just 13 percent backing for the Democratic hawk. If we assume, not unreasonably, that this tracks the Democrats' own divided sentiments on the impending war, then Democrats are inclined by nearly a 3-to-1 margin against the coming conflict.
That's not how Democratic senators voted, of course. Led by White House wannabes Joe Lieberman, the previously dovish John Kerry, the lighter-than-air John Edwards and the reluctant leader Tom Daschle, they approved the Iraq resolution by a 29-to-21 margin. The most surprising Democratic vote in opposition was probably that of Florida Senator Bob Graham, most likely the least visible, certainly the least audible, of the senior Democratic senators. Graham, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had steeped himself in every variety of terrorist threat, and, as he explained it, Iraq was not even on the list. Graham even introduced a somewhat idiosyncratic substitute resolution, directing U.S. efforts not against just al Qaeda but also against Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A roundabout way of getting to a "No" vote, perhaps, but Graham certainly demonstrated one can be obsessed by terrorist threats and still view the Bush war on Iraq as a grand non sequitur.
As events would have it, I was in Miami this past weekend, and the Democratic activists I spoke with were stunned and delighted by Graham's vote -- easily, the least conventional of an otherwise mainstream Southern Democratic career. That tells you something about the Democratic base, if they're cheering Graham in Florida. Although, Graham was the only Southern senator to oppose the war resolution.
THE HOUSE WAS ANOTHER MATTER altogether. There, fully 61 percent of House Democrats -- 126 of 208 -- broke not just with Bush but their own leader, Dick Gephardt, to oppose the war. Coming disproportionately from safe districts, the House Dems were free to vote their judgment and their conscience, and did so by a margin almost twice as high as anyone was predicting just a day or two before the vote.
The war resolution split the Los Angeles delegation in a way it had never before been split. The Republicans on the county's fringes (Dave Dreier, Buck McKeon and the outgoing Stephen Horn) sided with the president, as did all but six of their Republican colleagues nationally. But the 12 L.A. County Democrats split their vote by race and religion. That is, the three African-American members (Juanita Millender-McDonald, Maxine Waters and Diane Watson) and the four Latino members (Xavier Becerra, Grace Napolitano, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Hilda Solis) all voted "no," as did almost every black and Latino Democratic House member nationally. The five white Jewish members (Howard Berman, Jane Harman, Adam Schiff, Brad Sherman and Henry Waxman) all voted "yes."
Berman, in fact, was perhaps the single most important supporter of the Bush resolution among House Democrats; he negotiated changes in language and worked to build support for the measure. Harman is a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and hails from what was once one of the most heavily defense-industry districts in the land; her vote was no surprise, either. Of the five, Waxman has historically been the most dovish on foreign policy questions, and, of course, has been the one House member more than any other who's challenged the president repeatedly on matters of policy and conduct. Precisely because Waxman is so clearly the outstanding liberal member of Congress, his vote is the most disappointing.
It's not as if there was an unambiguous Jewish tilt toward war: The 10 Jewish Democratic senators split their vote 5 to 5. In California, Dianne Feinstein, after decrying the resolution for weeks, voted "yes," while Barbara Boxer opposed it. To some degree, the vote on the war resolution reflected where a Jewish legislator has come down on matters Israeli: Most of the Jewish legislators who voted "no" have been more vocally critical of Israel under its current government than those who voted "yes."
Without question, there was more support among Jewish legislators than would have been the case if Iraq didn't figure in to the nightmares of Israelis, doves as well as hawks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and most of the Israeli political leadership, regardless of party, support the U.S. taking out Saddam.
And yet one can, from an Israeli-centric viewpoint, make a pretty fair case against the Bush resolution; Jerusalem journalist Gershom Gorenberg did precisely that in a recent issue of The American Prospect. Such a war might eliminate Saddam's uncertain capacity to attack Israel with horrific weapons, he argued. But it might also prompt Saddam to begin those attacks; it could spawn a new generation of terrorists in the region; it could destabilize some Middle Eastern Arab regimes (admittedly rotten ones) and lead to their replacement by militant Islamic ones. And if a nation is now justified in waging preventive war against an enemy regime because it possesses weapons of mass destruction, might that not someday justify an Arab state's attack on Israel?
My colleague Howard Blume posed some of these concerns to Waxman, who acknowledged the risks of a U.S. invasion. "It could lead to an attack on Israel," said Waxman. "It could lead to an attack on other Arab countries. It could lead to an attack on our troops or an attack by Saddam Hussein on his own people. All of those are possibilities. But it would have been accepting a form of blackmail to allow him to succeed in scaring us off while making himself stronger for the future."
That position sounds surprisingly hawkish for Waxman, who voted against the Persian Gulf War resolution in 1991. And Waxman was at pains to note dissatisfaction with the wording of the current war resolution. He preferred an alternative put forward by Representative John M. Spratt Jr. (D-South Carolina), which would have authorized military force only with the backing of the U.N. Security Council. Absent U.N. support, Bush would have had to come back to Congress.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
That amendment was voted down 270 to 155.
"Once that amendment was defeated," said Waxman, "it was a far better signal to have a strong vote, to make it more likely that the United Nations Security Council would see the resolve of the American government, and so that Saddam Hussein would harbor no illusions."
Although Waxman rejects the principle of preventive or pre-emptive war and also talks of war as a last resort, he is nonetheless reconciled to unilateral U.S. action should Bush take the plunge (which, principle aside, sounds a good deal like embracing the practice of pre-emptive war).
Waxman's reasoning doesn't allude much to Israel at all, but it's hard to look at the vote of the California Democratic delegation and conclude that the normally good judgment of a number of liberal Democrats wasn't clouded by their inability to distance themselves from the conventional Israeli perspective on Saddam -- which is something quite different from the emerging liberal perspective on what seems the most dubious of wars. Something that both Waxman and Berman -- who, in the early 1960s, led the California Young Democrats to become the first Democratic organization in the United States to oppose the war in Vietnam -- should clearly understand.