Critics From All Corners

In June and July, Democrats had the political momentum. The agenda was tilting toward their issues: the economy, the stock market, corporate responsibility, and prescription drug insurance for seniors.

Then came August. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings, and the focus shifted to Iraq. A far better subject, in the White House's view, than the economy. Except for one thing: The White House didn't seem to be in control of the debate. Suddenly, critics were coming from all corners.

They included leading Republicans such as Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a senior minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And staunch conservatives such as House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. And men who had served President Bush's father, such as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger. And a member of President Bush's own Cabinet, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The president seemed to be losing the initiative. Or was he? The critics made a point of saying: We share the same goals in Iraq as President Bush. "Is Saddam a threat? Of course he is," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in late August. "Would we like to take him out? Of course we would. Would that be in the interest of the United States? Yes."

What the critics have been complaining about is the process. "In my opinion, we can't do this alone," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., remarked. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., cautioned, "We've got to have a full discussion in the Congress and a vote in both houses." As Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., an administration supporter, observed, "We have all these senators and members of the House who say the president hasn't made his case yet."

OK, the White House said. We'll bring Vice President Cheney out of his secure, undisclosed location and let him make the case. And he'll do it in terms of the agreed-on goals. "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Cheney said on August 26 in Nashville, Tenn. "There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

To critics who urge the United States to be cautious, Cheney responded, "We must indeed proceed with care." To critics who urge the president to consult with Congress and with allies, Cheney responded, "He will, as he has said he would, consult widely with the Congress, with our friends and allies, before deciding a course of action."

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that the United States needs to focus on the right goal in Iraq. "We should not concentrate so much on the phrase, 'getting rid of Saddam Hussein,' or 'regime change,' as we should on the weapons of mass destruction," Kissinger said on August 27. Cheney's response two days later in San Antonio: "The objective has to be disarmament."

In the August 15 Wall Street Journal, Scowcroft urged the administration to wait for "compelling evidence that Saddam had acquired nuclear weapons capability."

"That logic seems to me to be deeply flawed," Cheney said in his Nashville speech. "The argument comes down to this: Yes, Saddam is as dangerous as we say he is. We just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it."

In his article, Scowcroft warned, "Probably the most dire consequences would be the effect in the region." Cheney countered, "Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart."

In his Nashville speech, Cheney asserted: "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with U.N. resolutions. On the contrary, there is a great danger that it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow back in his box." That language may not have been authorized by the White House. The evidence? Three days later, Cheney toned down his warning. "Many have suggested that the problem can be dealt with simply by returning inspectors to Iraq," he said in San Antonio, "but we must remember that inspections are not an end in themselves." Then came Powell's statement on September 1. "The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return," the secretary of state told the BBC. "As a first step, let's see what the inspectors find."

Who won the political battle of August? Judging from the polls, the president's critics did. But the real political battle comes in November. And the White House is just getting out the big guns.

As of the end of August, the American public still supported sending ground troops to oust Saddam Hussein—but only by a slim majority, 51 percent to 40 percent. And two-thirds said, Don't launch an attack without congressional approval.

A majority of Democrats opposed going into Iraq, as did a majority of college graduates, who usually support presidential initiatives in foreign affairs. Did someone say, "Vietnam"?

In fact, the Vietnam analogy doesn't quite hold. Only 15 percent of Americans believe a war in Iraq will result in withdrawal without victory, i.e., "another Vietnam." On the other hand, only 30 percent believe it will be a quick war with few casualties, i.e., "another Persian Gulf." The prevailing view? Forty-nine percent predict that Iraq will be a long war, with many casualties. But ultimately, the United States will win.