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War Games in the Senate

From the time that George W. Bush’s administration came to power, a small but powerful faction, in the Pentagon and in the office of Vice President Cheney, has wanted to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein. But Iraq wasn’t in the front rank of the administration’s concerns for a while. Other presidential priorities occupied the White House’s attention—in the first year his domestic program, including his tax and education bills, and then September 11 and the deepening Middle East crisis. Even when the talk of war grew louder during this past summer, members of Congress did not believe that they would be faced so soon with the question of whether to grant the President the authority to go to war in Iraq.

That they were, and that they granted him the authority without serious debate, was symptomatic of several changes that have come about in Washington, some quite recent, some going back a few years. The administration doesn’t recognize, or would prefer not to recognize, traditional boundaries between the different branches of government. Its attitude toward Congress is contemptuous; it tells legislators only what it is forced to, and takes Congress into consideration only when there is no other choice. Other administrations have played loose with the truth, especially when it came to obtaining the power to wage war, but the Bush administration does a striking amount of it. And it’s an administration that plays rough.

The administration is dealing with an increasingly timorous Congress, whose members are fearful of taking steps that might alienate voters or strong interest groups. Congress has also become increasingly dependent on political consultants, whose jobs don’t end once an election is over but continue throughout a client’s congressional career. Consultants sit in on party strategy meetings on Capitol Hill and they have become, in effect, as much a part of a congressman’s staff as a press secretary. The consultant’s perception is narrow and short-term: whatever helps the client in the next election is what matters. During the last decade, as politics in Washington became more partisan and more nasty, and as the need to raise ever-increasing amounts of money consumed much of their time, many thoughtful legislators decided not to run again.

All of these factors came into play when the administration reluctantly agreed to seek congressional authority to go to war in Iraq. Bush and his close advisers at first considered not going to Congress—they thought that they already had the authority left over from the 1991 Gulf War to enforce UN resolutions broken by Iraq, and they didn’t want to bother with Congress. Presidents almost always win the authority they ask for to wage war, so sending a resolution to Congress carried no real risk. But the tone of the “debate” on Capitol Hill was hollow and characterized by weakness, betrayal, and fear.

Those who were doubtful until this fall that the administration was determined to go to war underestimated the persistence and suppleness of its advocates. Chief among them are Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense (who had served under Dick Cheney when he was defense secretary during the Gulf War); Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Cheney himself; and his chief of staff, E. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, who by all accounts takes even more aggressive positions than Cheney and strongly influences him. Libby worked in the Pentagon with Wolfowitz when Cheney was the elder Bush’s secretary of defense. Then there is Richard Perle, the smart, wily advocate of hawkish policies. He was not given a job in the Bush administration itself but was appointed as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a commission made up of outsiders, mostly hard-liners, charged with giving advice to Rumsfeld.

According to Bush advisers, putting Perle in an advisory position was intended by Bush’s transition officials to limit his influence. But this underestimated Perle. Rumsfeld is as keen on going to war with Iraq as the rest of the group but doesn’t say as much about it during the press conferences that have made him a media star. That the Vice President, who can talk to Bush whenever he wants, and on whom Bush heavily depends, strongly favored bringing down Saddam Hussein has counted heavily.

This group has an answer for every counterargument, however far-fetched. Shouldn’t the Arab–Israel dispute and its growing violence be settled first, as some in the State Department and elsewhere have argued? In a logic that has never been clear, Wolfowitz and his allies have argued that bringing down Saddam Hussein is the key to a settlement in the Middle East. Shouldn’t the priority be combating terrorism? By way of an answer, Wolfowitz took to buttonholing people at Washington events and telling them that if they only knew what he and others knew about Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda, they would have no doubt that removing him was the key to unraveling the international terrorist network. The CIA, however, has said it could not confirm several of their claims. Wolfowitz and others also argue that if democracy was established in Iraq it would spread throughout the Middle East, but how this would happen remains mysterious.

However flawed such rationales for the war have seemed to many critics, including a number of retired generals, Bush has adopted them: they fit his messianic streak, which has been increasingly in evidence since September 11. One of the more bizarre arguments put forth by the pro-war group—obviously intended to appeal to Bush’s filial loyalty—was that Saddam Hussein had brought down the first President Bush, by showing him to be “weak.” Since his victory in the Gulf War was the high point of the first President Bush’s presidency, this argument would seem to defy all logic.

Bush’s may be the most closed administration in memory, but it has been widely known that his foreign policy advisers were bitterly divided on how to deal with Iraq: there were hints to the press that the United States would act unilaterally if the UN didn’t adopt a strong resolution, and that it was prepared to impose military rule on Iraq. A number of key members of Congress—Republicans as well as Democrats—had deep misgivings about the sudden resurgence of the Iraq issue, shortly after Congress reconvened after Labor Day this year. Not only did they see no new reason for a war with Iraq, but they also had serious questions about the way the administration was going about getting into one. Congressmen who were given secret briefings emerged again and again to say that they had heard “nothing new”—nothing that portrayed Iraq as more dangerous than it had been for some time. Several senators said they had a particularly frustrating meeting with Rumsfeld on September 4, who had nothing new to say and objected to being asked questions. Some of them walked out, including John McCain, a strong proponent of war with Iraq.

Since it was assumed that the President would get what he wanted from a Republican-controlled House, the administration concentrated on the Senate, where Majority Leader Tom Daschle had serious doubts about the administration’s case for war. So did Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, as well as John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was privately raising many questions about the administration’s strategy. Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard Lugar of Indiana were concerned about the unilateral course the administration appeared to be taking; they urged that Bush seek a coalition. But none of them directly challenged the idea of going to war with Iraq.

There was also an uneasy sense among some Democrats that they were in the midst of a manufactured crisis. Several told me they suspected that a historic trick was being played on them by the President and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. The timing was suspicious. They remembered Rove’s speaking to the Republican National Committee in January 2001 about the war on terrorism and saying, “We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protect Americans.” Rove told some political allies last summer that it would be a very bad thing if Iraq developed a nuclear bomb on George W. Bush’s watch.

Though it is one of the best-kept secrets of the Bush administration, Rove has been dabbling in foreign policy all along. Last year, he told visitors to his office the share of the Jewish vote that Bush’s father had received in 1988, and how many votes Bush the son would need in 2004 to reach the same percentage his father had in 1988. Central to Rove’s political calculations is the fact that the Christian right has taken up the cause of Israel, in the belief that that is what Scripture prescribes (that is, no Palestinian state in the territory reserved for the Second Coming). Cultivating the Christian right, which now forms the base of the Republican Party, has been Rove’s major preoccupation. Prodding Bush toward favoring Israel in the Middle East struggle offered the possibility of pleasing two important pressure groups with one policy. And so, within days of the President’s Rose Garden speech this past April, in which he took a fairly balanced view of the two sides, Bush was backing away from urging Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian towns it had invaded. He was now calling Ariel Sharon a “man of peace.” Evangelical Christians, Jewish and neoconservative groups—Rove’s favorite constituencies—were lobbying the White House staff to get Bush to back off from his pressure on Israel.

The hawks in the administration were also bringing pressure to tilt administration policy further in favor of Israel. When Secretary of State Colin Powell was in the Middle East, trying to negotiate a cease-fire, Rove recruited Paul Wolfowitz to address a pro-Israel rally in Washington—something an administration official would not usually do. When the President sent emissaries to try to end the civil war in Sudan, Rove sought to make sure that any solution would be looked on with favor by the Christian right, which supports the Christian forces in the south over the Muslim forces in the north.

Numerous senators, particularly Democrats, suspected the administration’s timing in “rolling out” the Iraq issue in September, with the midterm elections not far off. The administration treated the issue as it would a piece of major domestic legislation it was determined to pass—not as a prelude to a war.

But manufactured crisis or not, Congress had to deal with it, and this put some senators in an awkward position—perhaps no one more so than Tom Daschle. He didn’t accept the administration’s argument that Iraq presented an imminent threat to the United States. Like a number of his colleagues, he had heard nothing in intelligence briefings that suggested that anything had changed significantly during the past year with regard to Iraq. He felt that his party was being cornered into a debate that was unnecessary, divisive, and a distraction from the issues that would help the Democrats in the November elections.

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