A Cautious Opposition

Will George W. Bush's decision to seek congressional approval for invading Iraq slow down the war juggernaut? Up to now, Democrats have only been willing to declare, as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) observed after President Bush's Sept. 4 address to congressional leaders, that "To date, the administration has not made the case for military action in Iraq." Even so, these voices have yet to swell into a chorus of serious opposition. Bush seems to be gambling that a month of hearings, ultimately, will produce more support than dissent.

Guarded criticism by Democrats first emerged at hearings held on July 31 and Aug. 1 by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These hearings, which included testimony by Richard Butler, former executive chairman of the United Nations Special Committee (UNSCOM), and Khidir Hamza, former Iraqi nuclear engineer, failed to convince committee members of the urgent need for a preemptive attack. Although Hamza testified about Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear weapons, he presented no proof that the Iraqi leader had built a nuclear warhead or could deliver one if he had it. The experts could not even show that Saddam possessed the delivery capacity to send a chemical or biological weapon to an American target.

It is not surprising that skepticism is centered in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which includes some of the most liberal members of the Democratic Party. Other than Feingold, the group includes Sens. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Barbara Boxer of California, John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware. (The other three members -- Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida -- form a more moderate element.)

Democratic opposition has been highly qualified, in part because President Bush has been so ambiguous about his plans and allowed high-level infighting to go public. As a consequence, there has been no clear policy statement beyond the general goal of "regime change." This, in turn, has made it difficult for the senators to know what exactly they should be reacting against. Indeed, the most common refrain repeated by these senators and their staffs is, "We are waiting to hear what the administration is going to say."

At the same time, Democrats have begun to shift the terms of debate by capitalizing on this very vagueness. The broad Democratic support in principle for regime change is starting to sound more like a rhetorical cover than a call to arms. Democrats do not want their criticisms of Bush to sound anti-patriotic or pro-Hussein, but they want to move attention toward other options and subject the administration's various plans to closer scrutiny.

After a 90-minute briefing with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Sept. 4, Wellstone told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that both Democrats and Republicans came out wondering, "Where is there any new information?" The administration's end run around the question of Saddam's nuclear capability and delivery capacity has always been the supposed al-Qaeda connection. But when Paula Zahn of CNN put this question to Nelson on Sept. 3, he quickly dismissed it. "In all of our hearings thus far, there is no evidence that al-Qaeda is being harbored by Saddam Hussein," he said.

So while opposition has not crystallized, the outlines of a full critique of preemptive invasion are slowly coming into focus. The critique goes something like this: There is no new evidence of Saddam's capability or intent. Moreover, as Kerry recently asserted in a New York Times op-ed: War "should be the last step, not the first," and it should happen with international support. Otherwise, the Middle East could become a tinderbox and the United States could further alienate current allies. Biden has further noted that the experts who testified at the Senate hearings estimated invasion costs of $80 billion to $100 billion -- not to mention loss of life -- and occupation costs of $16 billion to $18 billion a year, with the occupation lasting anywhere from 18 months to 20 years. And unlike the last Persian Gulf War, whose expenses were shared by allies, Japan and Germany are not going to pick up the tab this time around. Extended occupation troubles Democrats. "Look how long we've had people in Bosnia," Biden said, and still there are no signs of departure. Altogether, this is an overwhelming set of costs to pay for a war based on unsubstantiated suspicions.

In addition, as Boxer argued on CNN last month, Saddam's lack of compliance with inspections creates a legal basis for an inspection ultimatum but not for preemptive war. Kerry made the point even more forcefully in his op-ed: "We should ... offer a clear ultimatum to Iraq before the world: Accept rigorous inspections without negotiation or compromise." Scott Ritter, an American former member of the United Nations' inspections team, has also urged inspections over invasion. And Iraq: A New Approach, a recent proposal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, lends other expert voices to this view. Authored by a group including former members of UNSCOM and the Interna-tional Atomic Energy Agency, most notably former UNSCOM Executive Chairman Rolf Ekeus, the proposal calls for "coercive inspections," meaning inspectors backed by the threat of force. If Saddam does not comply, he will be overthrown.

While this adds up to a plausible line of argument that the Democrats could take, it has yet to cohere as a clear party critique. The argument that nuclear deterrence worked for four decades against the Soviet Union has hardly been ventured. While the Democrats disagree with Bush on the question of Saddam's current capability, they generally agree with the president on the question of intent. For the moment, the Democrats accept Bush's premise that Saddam Hussein is not a prudent authoritarian but an evil madman. This perception buttresses the operating premise of all current debates that if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he would use them. If this kind of fear and distrust of the Iraqi leader outweighs Democrats' qualms about evidence, Bush may still end up with the support he needs.

And the war train appears to be rolling. Bush has deployed his whole war cabinet to take his case public; he's made use of the September 11 anniversary and assumed a hawkish stance in front of the United Nations. For now, it is the dissension of many American allies -- Japan, Germany, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and the Kurds -- rather than the boldness of Senate Democrats that stands between Bush and a needless war.