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Democrats divided over challenging Bush on Iraq

WASHINGTON—Usually unified in opposition to President Bush, the Democratic Party is divided over whether to challenge Bush's drumbeat for war against Iraq.

Most prominent Democrats are cautiously straddling the middle ground. All would like to see Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein go, but most refuse to flatly support or oppose a pre-emptive U.S. war as the way to do it.

Few are attempting even to ignite a national debate on the question, even though Bush's assertion of a U.S. right to launch pre-emptive war would shift U.S. strategic policy profoundly away from the doctrines of defense, deterrence and containment that have guided America since the Founding Fathers. Bush announced the new policy June 1.

Democrats fear being labeled unpatriotic. They don't want force a debate now that would divert attention from domestic issues that they think boost their chances in November's elections. And, more than Republicans do, Democrats depend on Jews for money and votes—and Jews consider Iraq a lethal threat to Israel.

The hesitance of the nation's opposition party to help shape the debate on war stands in stark contrast to the position of several prominent Republicans who openly oppose an unprovoked U.S. invasion as either un-American or a blunder that would set back the broader war against terrorism, undermine America's alliances and threaten the U.S. economy. House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all recently took those stands.

Most of America's allies in Europe and the Middle East oppose an American strike against Iraq as unprovoked, inflammatory and unnecessary. The U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff share such reservations. So do top State Department officials, who worry not only about the war, but also about securing a stable peace after it. Economists warn that oil prices already are spiking in fear of war, risking renewed recession. And many critics fear that if America sets the precedent of toppling regimes it labels threats, other nations will do the same, jeopardizing the international framework of law and institutions erected after World War II.

Despite such stakes, most leading Democrats—including those angling to run for president in 2004—simply sidestep the big question. Among them are former Vice President Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts—all possible presidential candidates.

"It's overly simplistic to say are we in favor of a war or against a war," Edwards said in an interview Wednesday. "Saddam is dangerous and he needs to be gone. But there are many things that need to be done before any decision is made or action taken."

"I would love to see (Saddam) replaced," Gore said recently in response to a question from a group of college interns. "I have an open mind about the best ways to do that."

Perhaps the clearest national Democratic voice on the question rises from another possible contender in 2004, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000. He joins Bush in favor of war against Iraq.

Few Democratic candidates for Congress even raise the issue when campaigning for the Nov. 5 elections. "I don't hear Democrats muttering a word about this," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst who monitors campaigns.

"There's a certain amount of fear, let's face it," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who opposes war against Iraq. "The nature of politics is caution. People are just watching and wondering what's going on here."

Kucinich said he tried to convince Democrats in the House of Representatives to take a united stand against the war in a closed-door meeting before Congress' August recess. His colleagues, he said, didn't want to turn the national political debate away from corporate scandal and economic anxiety.

"There's a feeling that, look, let's not distract attention from the economy," Kucinich said in an interview Tuesday.

Most leading Democrats confine their qualms about war to reservations about how Bush is selling it. They question whether he has adequately made his case to the American people or U.S. allies, and whether he has worked hard enough to end Israeli-Palestinian violence, which makes it harder to build an Arab coalition against Iraq.

That hedged posture stands in contrast to frank opposition from several senior Republican dissidents. While they do not speak for a majority of their party, their prominence in dissent underscores the absence of such efforts at anti-war leadership from the opposition party.

"An attack on Iraq now would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken," said Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush and an architect of the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991. His comment came in a widely noted essay Aug. 15 in the Wall Street Journal.

House Republican Leader Armey, a staunch Texas conservative, said that launching a pre-emptive strike against Iraq in the absence of clear evidence of an imminent and lethal threat "would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation, or what we should be as a nation."

Only a handful of Democrats in Congress have similarly challenged Bush's argument for war.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, contended recently that attacking Iraq to prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction could actually incite him to fire them, for he would be a cornered dictator with nothing to lose. Containing Saddam has worked for 10 years, Levin said; why war now?

Others, including Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and Kucinich, want their party to boldly oppose Bush's rush toward war when Congress returns to Washington next month.

"Where else are we going to have the kind of debate we need if we don't have it in the United States Congress," Jackson-Lee said.

A decade ago, most Democrats weren't so shy about opposing war.

Virtually all of them in Congress agreed with the first President Bush that Saddam was a serious problem, but they favored imposing economic sanctions rather than going to war. When Congress considered a resolution authorizing war, 45 of 55 Senate Democrats and 179 of 265 House Democrats voted against it. The measure passed narrowly, and the war was waged and won.

Today the politics of war with Iraq is seen in the context of the war against terrorism, though there is no evidence that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.

Polls show that 2 out of 3 Americans support war with Iraq, although that margin drops when significant U.S. casualties or a prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq is figured in. In this climate, Democrats fear that if they openly oppose war against Iraq they might be judged weak or unpatriotic, and suffer at the polls.

Democrats remember that when Daschle questioned the administration's war strategy in Afghanistan last February, Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, accused him of "giving aid and comfort to our enemies."

One Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that party leaders are timid on the war question, but argued that it is unfair to compare them with Republican war opponents.

"It's easier for them (Republicans) to be more forceful," said the strategist, who is allied with one of the Democrats weighing a run for president. "They don't have to fight the perception of being soft on terrorism. And no one will attack them for it. Fair or not, they can get away with it more. If Democrats asked questions now, the Republican machinery would go into full gear to smack them down."


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.