Democratic Reluctance to Address Iraq

The isolation of two large oceans makes most Americans happily immune to a preoccupation with foreign affairs. We expect everyone to be like us, content to raise our families and indulge in commercial pursuits. We simply do not pay very much attention to foreign affairs, even affairs that may be crucial to our well-being. For most Americans, Iraq and Saddam Hussein are issues that concerned us ten years ago, when the US and its allies liberated Kuwait from the Iraqis. Most troops returned home to cheers and parades. Events in the region during the post-Gulf War period made the news, but were largely ignored. Nonetheless, the Gulf War and its aftermath do provide some illuminating insight into the American political landscape.

In the run up to the Gulf War, the Vietnam-era, Democratic anti-war movement had moved into full gear. Extrapolating from the Vietnam experience, there were dire predictions of a quagmire in the desert and massive American casualties. Congress very reluctantly approved military action. A majority of Democrats (including the current Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle) and all of the Democratic leadership refuse to endorse military action. The Democrats were deeply and viscerally opposed to any military action and were convinced that sanctions should be used to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait. If that counsel had been followed, Kuwait would now be a province of Iraq.

Despite the military success of the Gulf War, George Bush (41) was not re-elected. Americans once again proved that economic problems trump success abroad. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, as a “New Democrat” driven less by ideology and more by practicality. Bill Clinton embraced this “practicality” in helping to implement the arms inspection regime to insure that Saddam Hussein was ridding himself of weapons of mass destruction.

For a few years, we believed we were largely successful. It was not until an Iraqi defected that we appreciated the full extent of Iraqi’s program for obtaining weapons of mass destruction. The inspections were a key element in the agreement that suspended hostilities. In the ensuing years, the arms inspectors played a cat and mouse game with the Iraqis. The Iraqis delayed and stalled to prevent a full and complete inspections regime.

By February 1998, Clinton was convinced that Iraqi intransigence implied they were seeking weapons of mass destruction and would use them. In a call for action, Clinton argued that Hussein’s “regime threatens the safety of his people, the stability of his region, and the security of all the rest of us. Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal. Let there be no doubt, we are prepared to act. I know the people we may call upon in uniform are ready. The American people have to be ready as well.”

Unlike the call for action by George Bush (41), this call was welcomed by the Democratic leadership, including Tom Daschle, who co-sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 71. The resolution authorized the president to “take all necessary and appropriate actions to respond to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end it’s weapons of mass destruction programs.”

Why were some Democrats so reluctant to authorize the use of force by the first President Bush against Iraq, eager to so empower President Clinton, and again squeamish about support for the second President Bush. Some Republican and Conservative critics argue that Democrats have no real position and are just playing politics with national defense issues. That explanation is far too simplistic.

Despite the grant of military authority to Clinton by many Democrats, others in the party were far less sanguine about permitting open-ended discretion. Senator Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois confessed that the broad language of the resolution made him uneasy. Senator Max Cleland (D) of Georgia drew a close analogy with Vietnam, explaining that “there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment…as there was with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” While embracing the idea of broad executive authority in domestic affairs, with some exceptions, the core of the Democratic Party is disinclined to grant such authority to a president and is deeply and habitually distrustful of anything military.

Daschle and other Democrats did not really abandon their scruples about US military intervention. The reason that Daschle and others were so willing to grant Clinton military authority and are parsimonious about such grants to both George Bushs is that they fully understand the consequences of such grants. They know that both Bushs were likely to fully employ and exploit such authority. On the other hand, they understood that Clinton would be unwilling to expend much political capital in going after Saddam Hussein with the full military force necessary.

President Clinton would say the right words about Hussein’s regime and warn about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, Richard Cohen, would emphasize that continued Iraqi intransigence would put “Security Council credibility on the line [and]…US credibility as well.” However, in the end, he would not be willing to commit the necessary forces to disarm Hussein’s dangerous regime. Passage of Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 was essentially a no-cost action by Democrats that would provide political cover for their antipathy towards the use of military power.

They were right. By October 1998, Iraq ended all cooperation with arms inspectors. Despite the United Nations resolutions, there would be no more inspections in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. In December 1998, coalition forces launched four days of air strikes, no doubt doing significant damage to Iraqi capabilities. However, after thrashing about for four days, the assault ended. Iraq had successfully remove arms inspectors and were now free to pursue plans for biological, chemical, and nuclear capabilities, while Americans and British provided only a token response. For Iraq, the strategy has worked for at least four years.

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