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Democrats dance the Iraq minuet

While raising the pitch of their criticism of President Bush’s Iraq policy, Democratic presidential contenders are treading carefully. By Tom Curry.
Dick Gephardt has sharpened his criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy.
Dick Gephardt has sharpened his criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy.
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While raising the pitch of their criticism of President Bush’s Iraq policy, Democratic presidential contenders are treading carefully. Increase the number of troops occupying Iraq, say Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Dick Gephardt, just make sure they are foreign troops, not American. Mindful of those rank-and-file Democrats who oppose the Iraq occupation, Kerry and Gephardt balance their support for the occupation with criticism of Bush for allegedly bungling it.

The news Tuesday that U.S. troops had killed Saddam Hussein’s sons Odai and Qusai illustrated another risk in Democrats’ attacking Bush.

Late-breaking news events could cast Bush’s Iraq strategy in a more favorable light and make Democrats’ criticism sound caviling or irrelevant.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle told reporters Tuesday that killing Saddam’s sons was important, “but I would simply say what many of us have said from the beginning: In order to win the peace we need more help, ... we need more personnel, we need more international involvement. This doesn’t change that.”

The cause of the continuing Iraq imbroglio, Gephardt argued in a speech in San Francisco on Tuesday, is that Bush has failed to enlist the support of foreign governments who should be contributing troops to help pacify the country.


“It’s so destructive to American foreign policy to treat our own allies like so many flies on the American windshield when, in fact, we need their help to get where we’re going,” Gephardt said.

He charged that “the Bush-Cheney bravado has left us isolated in the world — fracturing 50 years of alliances, calling into question our credibility, squandering the global goodwill that was showered on us” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush is to blame for worldwide anti-Americanism, Gephardt contended, with his refusal to support such accords as the Kyoto global warming treaty.

“We’ve got 147,000 Americans (in Iraq) now; we’re spending $4 billion a month in Iraq; it’s not mere machismo to resist asking allies for help, it’s absolute insanity,” he said.


In a conference call with reporters Monday, Kerry said he is not focusing his fire at this point on the turbid controversy over whether Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from Niger.

And Kerry is stepping away from the “where are the weapons of mass destruction?” rallying cry — perhaps wary that the rug may be pulled out from under Bush’s critics on that point.

“We may find weapons of mass destruction tomorrow, we may find them in two weeks, we may find them in two months,” Kerry noted.

Uranium and WMD should not be Democrats’ preoccupations, he said. “My greater concern right now is managing the peace, the winning of the peace.”

For there to be stability in Iraq, Kerry argued, the Bush administration must ask — more insistently than it has up to this point — European governments and others including India for troops to patrol Iraq.

The administration is not doing “what is common sense: to broadly, openly internationalize the on-the-ground effort in Iraq.”

He accused Bush of acting out of “hubris” — a term often used during the Vietnam War to assail President Lyndon Johnson — in not asking others for help.

As he invariably does when discussing foreign policy, Kerry brought up his service in the Vietnam War. Half of the names of Americans inscribed on the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington date “from the time that that kind of pride began to cloud the decisions in Vietnam,” he said.

Both Kerry and Gephardt dismissed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s testimony two weeks ago to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Bush administration has “issued requests to something like 70 or 80, 90 countries” for troops to help impose order in Iraq.

“Our goal is to get large numbers of international forces in from lots of countries,” Rumsfeld said, including from France and Germany, two nations that staunchly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March.


What if, for their own reasons, the French, the Germans, and others decide to let the United States stew in a problem of its own making?

That just won’t happen, Kerry said. “I know for a fact there are countries prepared to be helpful,” he told reporters.

A question neither Gephardt nor Kerry addressed was this: If foreign governments continue to say “no,” does the Iraq occupation become not worth pursuing?

Neither Gephardt nor Kerry said they thought it was necessary to enlarge the U.S. military so that over-stressed soldiers could be rotated out of Iraq. This is an argument that has been made by at least one Democratic senator who is a member of the Armed Services Committee and recently toured Iraq, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Reed’s views carry extra weight since he is a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne.

Democratic contender Howard Dean, who opposed the Iraq invasion, told last week that he opposed Reed’s view.

“The solution in Iraq has nothing to do with the size of the American armed forces,” Dean said. “The solution in Iraq was to do what I thought we should have done in the first place, which is to go in with the U.N. ... It’s not too late to bring in the U.N.”

Dean suggested if the United States sent peacekeeping troops to Liberia, “we could then rejoin the international community and get their help with the rebuilding of Iraq and also Afghanistan.”

Dean has been harshly critical of Kerry and Gephardt, as well as their fellow Democratic contenders North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who all voted for the congressional use-of-force resolution last October.

Kerry and the others who voted “yes” continue to wrestle with the problem of how to oppose the Bush policy having already endorsed it.

Democratic candidate George McGovern had an easier job of it opposing Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policy in 1972. McGovern said, “Bring our boys home.” It turned out that the voters rejected McGovern, but at least he could make a straightforward case to the American people.


Gephardt and Kerry, especially, seem to feel that they must continually explain their Iraq votes.

Kerry spent part of his Monday press conference detailing what last October’s congressional resolution meant to him. He said he voted for it only because he trusted that Bush would build an international coalition before attacking Iraq.

“It seems quite clear to me that the president circumvented that process, shortchanged it and did not give full meaning to the words ‘last resort,’” Kerry said.

In his speech Tuesday, Gephardt said, “I make no apologies for supporting the war in Iraq. I still hope and pray for the president’s success in world affairs.”

But he added, “George Bush has left us less safe and less secure than we were four years ago.”

Explaining the prelude to the war, Gephardt said, “I believed then, and I believe now: either Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or components of weapons of mass destruction. Either way, he was in clear violation of more than a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions ... resolutions we passed because the whole world knew Saddam was a threat unless he was disarmed.”

Kerry, Gephardt and the other Democratic contenders who backed Bush on Iraq face pressure from those voters who opposed the invasion.

Two weeks ago while campaigning in Iowa, Gephardt was confronted by two irate Democrats who demanded that he apologize and show remorse for voting for the invasion.


So far the only Democratic contender using the phrase “exit strategy” is Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

A bit further to the left of Kucinich are members of the Green Party who call for a “Home by the Holidays” policy of bringing U.S. troops back by Christmas not only from Iraq, but from Afghanistan, Colombia and the Philippines as well.

To win the White House next year, the Democrats may need some of the 2.8 million votes that the Greens cast in the 2000 election.