Congressional cowardice and the risks of war

By Ellen Ratner

Last week I (and many other Americans) called upon President Bush to seek the approval of Congress before proceeding with the war against Saddam. I stated that I opposed that war, but wanted Bush to submit to Congress for the sake of clarity.

Let those who feel as I do “come out of the closet” and declare their opposition – let’s have a real debate and put the risks on the table for the people to decide. Every person in Congress should have the courage to either step up and vote for the thing, or step out in opposition.

But when push comes to shove, will Congress have the guts for a real debate? Early indications are not encouraging. I happen to know that most Democratic members of the Senate and House have serious misgivings about this war – some even privately oppose it. But all are trembling at the prospect of having an up or down vote on the issue.

Right now, Bush’s only opposition to the war is coming from those pesky French, Germans and Russians. And in an America which has become much more patriotic since 9-11, these Europeans are no match for the president in carrying the argument. If both sides of the issue are to be debated, it can only happen on Capitol Hill.

So what’s got our solons so terrified to speak their minds? When it comes to complaining about tax cuts, budget deficits and En-Com-Crossing scams, they’re as chatty as a telemarketer. But when the question involves the lives of up to 250,000 young American men and women, potentially hundreds of billions in treasure and the potential of a nuclear, biological or chemical exchange somewhere in the region, Congress suddenly gets laryngitis.

In a word, polls.

The public supports this war, perhaps not having had the benefit of hearing all sides of the issue. But Congress surely remembers that in 1991, when Bush the Elder went for a congressional resolution on the Gulf War, all Senate naysayers had egg on their faces when the war was (relatively) easily won.

Think John Kerry. He voted against the Gulf War and now he’s running for president. Do you think he wants to handle that question at his first presidential debate? (Assuming he makes it that far.) Not a chance. Al Gore – who voted in favor of the Gulf War Resolution – was thanking his lucky stars during his debates with Bush the Younger that he didn’t have to answer the same question.

So here’s how Congress – and particularly the Democratic members of the Senate – will likely handle the issue. Instead of taking Bush head on, they’ll disingenuously move the goal line back by claiming that whatever evidence the administration presents them for the attack will not be enough; they’ll whine about lack of disclosure; they’ll slip speeches into the Congressional Record asserting all sorts of misgivings; in fact, they’ll do any dance they can in order to take credit for a successful war while preserving the option of “I told you so” if things go badly.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the political equivalent of a soldier deserting his post under fire. The stakes are much higher than in ’91. This time, there won’t be a coalition to take out Saddam – except for Britain, the rest of Europe and the Middle East (except Israel) are not on board.

This time, Saddam has few restraints in deploying what weapons he has. And this time, the Scud missiles he launches against Israel are likely to be filled with chemicals or germs instead of TNT.

The Israelis surely believe it – two weeks ago, they began to inoculate their population with smallpox vaccine and are stocking antibiotics against anthrax and other diseases. And this time, if Saddam launches these weapons against Tel Aviv, does anyone doubt that Sharon is going to sit idly by?

Rumors are that Israel has somewhere around 200 deliverable nukes. Is this a war we want to get into on the say-so of a president who won Florida – the deciding state – by 500 votes?

If Congress votes for war, I’ll support my country like any other patriot. But I must demand that Congress not insult the peoples’ intelligence. Give us a full and fair televised debate, and then give us an up-or-down vote. No evasions, no pettifoggery and no both-sides-of-the-mouth bloviations.

In a democracy, declaring war is too important for generals or presidents. Let’s have a vote.