WASHINGTON—Another senior Republican lawmaker voiced unease Wednesday about the rush toward war with Iraq and called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to defend the Bush administration's rationale for military action when Congress returns next week from its month-long recess.
Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued his call two days after Vice President Dick Cheney laid out the administration's most forceful case yet for ousting Saddam Hussein, triggering alarm around the world. Cheney argued that the Iraqi dictator presents a clear and present danger of using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies. But independent experts and most world governments—including U.S. allies—question whether there is evidence to back up those assertions.
"There appears to be a `gap' in the facts possessed by the executive branch and the facts possessed by the legislative branch," Warner said in a letter to committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., asking him to seek Rumsfeld's testimony.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Rumsfeld looks forward to testifying before Congress in coming months.
In an interview with Knight Ridder, Warner said Congress should vote before the president launches any military mission against Iraq, although he conceded that Bush probably can proceed without legislative approval if he chooses.
"The Constitution is clear: The president has the right to act with or without the Congress," Warner said, referring to the president's powers as commander in chief. "But I hope Congress takes some formal action so that we can be accountable, along with the president, for the consequences of any military action."
The White House repeatedly has promised to "consult" Congress and U.S. allies before taking military action against Iraq, but has not said whether it wants lawmakers to vote on the question. White House lawyers maintain that Bush possesses the legal authority to attack Iraq and needs no approval from Congress. President George Bush, the current president's father, asked for and won formal approval from Congress in 1991 to attack Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.
"We have and will continue to consult with Congress, as well as our friends and allies, as we move forward," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday at Bush's Texas ranch, where the president is vacationing. He said the White House welcomed Warner's call for hearings, saying they would be "part of a healthy discussion on how we move forward in Iraq. We look forward to participating and being cooperative with Congress as those hearings are held."
Levin issued a statement saying he had not yet decided whether to hold hearings on Iraq.
Much of the skepticism on Capitol Hill about invading Iraq comes from the president's fellow Republicans. Indeed, some of the strongest dissents have come from top former aides to his father, including former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker.
Scowcroft warned that attacking Iraq now would jeopardize the more-important global war on terrorism by angering needed allies, and he and Baker called for Bush to work instead with the United Nations to send new weapons inspectors into Iraq. "There is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time," Scowcroft observed in a Wall Street Journal opinion article.
On Monday, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., warned that any move against Iraq without congressional backing "risks its long-term success. The White House should be mindful of the important distinction between what the president can do, and what he ought to do," said Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations committee. "On an issue as important as this, Congress has time for a debate and a vote."
Hyde is planning hearings of his own in the House of Representatives, and Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held hearings in July.
Most dissenting Republicans say Bush must build international support before any invasion of Iraq. Key U.S. allies in the Arab world, including Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain, all strongly opposed such an attack after Cheney's speech, saying it would destabilize the Middle East. Since Saudi Arabia refuses to permit U.S. forces to launch an attack from its soil, U.S. military facilities in Qatar and Bahrain probably will be necessary to any U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Even in Britain—America's most loyal ally—Foreign Minister Jack Straw distanced London somewhat from Cheney's remarks. U.N. weapons inspections are preferable for now, Straw said.
"There's been a backlash regarding the (Cheney) speech, no question," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Part of what a U.N. strategy does is that it leads inevitably to the conclusion, with the whole world watching, that Saddam Hussein is not interested in complying with resolutions that he himself agreed to earlier on," said a top Republican aide in the House International Relations Committee, who also insisted on anonymity. Saddam has never cooperated fully with U.N. weapons inspectors, and Cheney argued Monday that he was able to hide his weapons even when inspectors were in Iraq. Cheney said weapons inspections would permit Saddam to buy time to grow more dangerous.
Warner said there had been a "crescendo" in the debate over Iraq policy in August while Congress has been on recess, requiring further information from the Bush administration. He said he has been reading carefully the views expressed by Scowcroft and Baker. And he specifically noted comments last week by retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, an adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In a speech Friday to the Economic Club of Florida, Zinni warned that war against Iraq would strain American forces and would anger U.S. allies in the region. "We need to quit making enemies that we don't need to make enemies out of," he said, according to a report in the Tampa Tribune.
The State Department on Wednesday distanced itself from Zinni's remarks, noting that he works as an unpaid senior adviser only on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"He's doing this one thing for us," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "The rest of his life is his life, and the rest of what he says is what he says."
Though many Democrats have called for Bush to seek congressional approval before embarking on an Iraqi invasion, party leaders have stood aside and let the debate burst within the Republican ranks.
In an interview Wednesday, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, a member of the Democratic leadership, said launching an attack on Iraq without the support of Congress "would be a horrible mistake."
(Knight Ridder correspondents Warren P. Strobel and Diego Ibarguen contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Warner, Carl Levin