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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.

Moreover, the Senate’s Democratic caucus was divided among those, like Joseph Lieberman, who was an early supporter of an attack on Iraq; those who had serious doubts; and those who were flatly opposed. Vulnerable Democrats up for reelection feared that casting a vote against the President’s position would hurt them in November. Daschle was worried that challenging Bush on this issue could cause the Democrats to lose control of the Senate. The vote on the administration’s resolution, moreover, was influenced by a myth: that politicians who opposed the Gulf War in 1991 had paid a political price for their votes. But there is no evidence that a vote against the Gulf War resolution cost any senator his seat. Democrats were also intimidated by Bush’s popularity in the polls. Evan Bayh, a freshman Democrat from Indiana, made an unusually bold statement about how the Senate vote would affect Democratic prospects: “The majority of the American people tend to trust the Republican Party more on issues involving national security…. We need to work to improve our image on that score by taking a more aggressive posture with regard to Iraq.”

Tom Daschle came under criticism from people inside and outside the Senate for not “leading” on the issue; but if some Democratic senators felt they had to vote for the war to keep their seats, he wasn’t going to force them to do otherwise, and it was doubtful he could have done so anyway. If Lyndon Johnson were to return to the Senate, he wouldn’t recognize it. Far more than in his day, senators are like independent contractors: they raise their own money, have their own understandings with their constituents and supporters. Especially on the Democratic side, there’s nothing like a party establishment that could pull people into line. Though various senators in both parties argued that the President should obtain UN authority to wage war against Iraq, few were willing to say outright that a war with Saddam wasn’t worth fighting.

Within the administration this past summer there was a fierce struggle, which reached a climax in August, on how to approach the Iraq question. That the President had to talk about Iraq in front of the UN became clear to all his advisers. The members of Congress who fell all over themselves praising him for having “gone to the UN” simply ignored the fact that a speech by the president to the General Assembly each September has been an annual event. The issue among Bush’s advisers was whether he should announce to the UN that Saddam was already in “material breach” of the cease-fire resolutions, and that there would be “consequences”—meaning war. (“Material breach” is understood to be a casus belli.) It was quickly decided that this would be unacceptable politically and internationally and that the administration should ask only for a new UN resolution. Cheney, Libby, and Wolfowitz, among others, opposed a demand for new inspections because that would hold up taking the action they were eager to take. (Cheney gave two speeches in August denouncing inspections as futile, although the second was toned down at the urging of officials in the White House.)

Colin Powell argued that Bush must get congressional approval for a war and build an international coalition to support both a strong UN resolution and a war. He consistently argued for inspections. In late August Powell told David Frost in an interview that inspections were “part of our policy” and that if inspections failed there would be “consequences.” Some hard-line Republicans were upset by his insistence on inspections and called for his resignation. Powell told me, “The fact of the matter is that I was reaffirming the President’s policy.” (Bush himself had in fact been publicly calling for inspections since January 2002.) Since Powell seems an isolated figure within the President’s foreign policy group, how did this agreement come about? “Colin argued common sense,” an ally of Powell told me. “He has an 88 [percent] job approval rating, and international opinion was with him.”

Bush is reliably said to have believed that Powell was forced on him by Republican transition officials, and there were indications early in the administration that he resented Powell’s popularity and independent standing. At one meeting, Powell joked, “After all, Mr. President, you can’t fire me.” Bush replied tersely, “I know.” In early August, Powell met with Bush alone for an hour in the residential quarters of the White House and laid out for Bush the problems concerning Iraq. He told Bush that the US needed international support and that the way to get that support was to take his case to the UN. Public statements by former officials of the first Bush administration, among them Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Lawrence Eagleburger, arguing that Bush had to build a broad coalition if he was to fight a war, strengthened Powell’s hand, an effect that was probably deliberate on the part of the former officials.

Even though it had become clear to the administration that for them to get UN support there would have to be inspections, the President did not mention inspections in his speech to the UN on September 12. Shortly before the speech was given, Condoleezza Rice deleted a line in the draft speech that said inspectors should “return” to Iraq. The official explanation for the omission of inspections in the speech was that the old rules, under which palaces and other sites were off limits, were not acceptable, and that it would have been too complicated to propose new ground rules. In any event, the day after the speech, when Powell met with the permanent five members of the Security Council—who could veto any new resolution—inspections were part of the discussions. There was, of course, some cynicism behind the President’s speech; he didn’t expect Saddam Hussein to agree to his demands. His strongest point was to remind the UN that Saddam had agreed to several UN resolutions in the past concerning Iraq, and to warn that if the UN couldn’t enforce its own resolutions it would become irrelevant. But Bush also seemed to suggest that in going to the UN he was just going through the motions in order to gain domestic and international support; he publicly warned that if the UN failed to act the United States would do so unilaterally. After Bush wins a point, some observers have noticed, he tends to swagger. In this case, he challenged the patriotism of the members of Congress who didn’t want to approve a resolution authorizing the President to go to war until the UN had acted. “It seems like to me,” he said, “that if you’re representing the United States, you ought to be making a decision on what’s best for the United States.”

Under questioning by some members of Congress, the administration began to offer “evidence” of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but the evidence wasn’t persuasive. For example, a “very senior al-Qaeda leader” was said to have received “medical treatment in Baghdad this year.” ABC reported the next day that the “senior al-Qaeda leader” had left Baghdad, and that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government had even known he was there. Though pressed to do so by administration officials, the CIA has been unable to come up with any confirmed link between Iraq and the attacks on September 11. Intelligence officials said that they couldn’t confirm Bush’s claim in a speech in Cincinnati that Iraq helped to train al-Qaeda operatives in “bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.” In October, as if in response, Rumsfeld had the Pentagon set up its own new intelligence unit.

It’s a really bizarre situation up here,” Senator Byron Dorgan, of North Dakota, told me in late September:

In most cases when we’re talking about an issue of this magnitude we’d have a wide-open debate, but we’re not having one. Privately, a lot of people here are saying, Does this country want to initiate an attack on another country? But they’re not saying it out loud. No one wants to be seen as weak to a potential threat to this country.

With few exceptions, the speeches before the voting on the Iraq resolution were pro forma—senators announcing their position and justifying, or rationalizing, it, senators figuring the advantages and disadvantages of opposing the President, and trying to draft “improvements” on the administration’s resolution.

The resolution was so sweeping—authorizing the President not only to “use all means” to enforce UN resolutions concerning Iraq, but also to “restore international peace and security within the region”—that the White House couldn’t have expected it to be approved without changes. The reference to the entire “region” was clearly overreaching. The White House calculated that Congress would try to “improve” the draft, while meeting the administration’s basic request. And Congress fell into the trap.

Tom Daschle, who at first said that the vote on the resolution shouldn’t take place until after the election (thereby protecting vulnerable Democratic candidates), decided to get the vote over with as quickly as possible. He and other Democrats were being urged by their political consultants to get the issue behind them so that they could return to their presumably stronger domestic issues: the state of the economy and the high cost of prescription drugs. The alternate draft that seemed to hold the most promise for a compromise was offered by Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Richard Lugar, the committee’s ranking member; this would limit the casus belli to the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and limit the scope of military action to Iraq. Chuck Hagel agreed to that approach. Another resolution by Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would limit the administration’s powers even further by requiring that the US act only through the UN.

Al Gore was the first prominent Democrat to criticize the administration’s approach, but his effectiveness was undercut by his making the issue of war seem a personal challenge to Bush. Gore argued that military action against Iraq was premature, that the administration should concentrate on the war on terrorism. Iraq, he said, posed “a serious threat” to the Middle East, but not an “imminent threat.” Washington being what it is, Gore’s speech was examined for what it might mean for his chances if he decided to run for the nomination in 2004. He gave his speech and disappeared again.

Edward M. Kennedy made a more carefully reasoned speech, arguing that inspections should be tried and the UN’s efforts should be exhausted before Congress passed a resolution. During the days before the Senate was to vote, Kennedy, probably the most effective legislator in many years, was on the floor each day, raising questions and objections. In the end he was one of the twenty-three Democrats who voted against the resolution.

On October 2, the President, in a display of power in the Rose Garden, announced that an agreement had been reached on a compromise resolution. He was surrounded mostly by Republicans along with Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader. Gephardt had been negotiating secretly with the White House, while Bush had left Daschle out of the discussions. The new resolution limited the scope of military action to Iraq but allowed the President to go to war unilaterally, and kept the administration’s provision that force could be used to enforce any UN resolution regarding Iraq. Gephardt had told Daschle he was going to the White House to discuss the administration’s proposal; but Daschle, who works with Gephardt on many issues, hadn’t expected him to reach a deal. He was not at all pleased that Gephardt had done so.

Gephardt was an early supporter of giving the President the authority to go to war with Iraq. Since his principles are sometimes difficult to find, no one could be sure if Gephardt actually believed this or was positioning himself for a run for the Democratic nomination in 2004. Other Democratic senators seethed at the sight of Gephardt and other Democratic supporters of the war standing in the Rose Garden with Bush; nor were they pleased when Lieberman rushed to the Senate floor to introduce the new resolution. Biden lamented to reporters that it was now “too late” to press his own resolution, which limited the casus belli to the issue of Iraq’s continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction.

And within a few days, Lugar, his Republican co-sponsor, conceded after a telephone call from the President and a meeting with Rice and Powell. The White House didn’t want someone of Lugar’s stature opposing the President. Bush told Lugar, as he told many others, that he hadn’t yet made a decision to go to war. Some senators, grasping at whatever rationalization they could find, said that they were pleased that the Bush administration was talking less about “regime change”—getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But a high official told me that regime change remained the administration’s policy: after all, Bush had said publicly several times that Saddam had to be removed. But this aspect of the policy was being played down because the administration was trying to get a tough new resolution calling for stringent inspections through the UN. (Although Cheney, Perle, and others had publicly dismissed inspections as unworkable, the administration by the end of October was concentrating on a UN resolution authorizing inspections and implicitly giving the US the power to invade if Saddam didn’t fully cooperate.)

Lugar’s surrender surprised Biden and left him isolated. Hagel, who had received a great deal of television coverage for his differences with the administration, fell silent. Then, in the final days before the vote, one by one the senators announced their positions. John Kerry, who some people hoped would lead the opposition, announced his support for the Gephardt-administration resolution. (The House had already passed it by a vote of 296–133, with a majority of Democrats voting against it—and against their leader, Gephardt.) Kerry even said that he thought Bush should have used the international support he had in the days after September 11 to go after Saddam Hussein then. John Edwards of North Carolina, another likely presidential candidate, had announced earlier his support of Bush. Feinstein announced that she would go along with the President. She was satisfied, she said, that he wouldn’t make war unilaterally. But Bush has never explicitly ruled that out.

Then Daschle, despite his serious misgivings, announced that he, too, would support the Gephardt-administration resolution because it “is fundamentally different and better” than the administration’s first proposal. He believed, he said, that Saddam Hussein “represents a real threat” and it was “important for America to speak with one voice at this critical moment.” That put every would-be Democrat nominee for the 2004 presidential election on what they believed was the safe side politically.

On October 11 the Senate voted 77–23 to give the President the authority to go to war with Iraq. (The late Paul Wellstone was the only Democrat in a tight reelection race to vote against it.) Thus, by playing on political fears and weakness, and by clever manipulation, the President won the war for the war. Only later did the administration reveal that North Korea had admitted that it had the nuclear bomb, a fact that could have complicated its case to Congress and made for a different debate. A small number of senators complained that they had been kept in the dark. But Bush never faced a serious challenge to his demand for unrestricted power to make war in Iraq. With the newly elected Republican Senate, that power will now be greater than ever.

—November 7, 2002

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