Posted on August 19, 2002 in Washington Watch

The battle over whether or not the United States should militarily act against Iraq is now in full bloom. After Senator Joseph Biden forced the question by calling for three days of congressional hearings on the issue, the discussion has exploded into a rather sharp debate.

During the past year, it was the hawks who appeared to be winning the debate over Iraq. In the aftermath of September 11, those who sought an immediate U.S. attack against Baghdad were emboldened. Critics were intimidated into silence, and only a few brave souls, most notably, former Vice President Al Gore, urged caution.

For a time, it appeared that an invasion was inevitable. It was, we were told, a matter of “when” not “if.” Those of us who cautioned against such a foolish adventure were belittled or dismissed.

As a result, public opinion polls showed that a large majority of Americans favored an attack against Iraq. This, in turn, further cowed many politicians from expressing opposition. Remembering how Republicans were able to demean those Democrats who voted against authorizing the 1991 Gulf War, most Democratic candidates for office have been shy about criticizing the current campaign against the Baghdad regime.

A review of the congressional debate taking place in districts around the U.S. leading up to the 2002 elections, establishes a virtual consensus in support of a war. And most of the 2004 Democratic presidential aspirants, again with the exception of Al Gore, have become hawks on the issue.

This was the situation until the Biden hearings. Now, it appears, the dynamic has shifted. In just the last week powerful and, in some cases, surprising voices have been raised cautioning against a unilateral U.S. invasion or attack against Iraq.

Respected Republican foreign policy experts like former Bush Administration National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Lawrence Eagleburger have written detailed critiques of the hawk’s position. For his part Scowcroft warned that the United States must first pay attention to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute because to “go after Iraq” without first solving the Middle East conflict would result in “an explosion of outrage against us.” Scowcroft further argued “there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time…making any military operations…more difficult and expensive.”

Kissinger raised the deeper concern about the fact that any U.S. war in Iraq would require a longer term American commitment than has been projected by any of the neo-conservative hawks. All of these arguments serve to reinforce the position of Secretary Colin Powell’s Department of State, which is engaged in an intra-Administration debate with the hawks roosting in the Pentagon.

Further evidence of an erosion in the Administration’s efforts to have a Republican consensus in support of a war came from a surprising quarter. Late last week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey made clear his rejection of a unilateral preemptive U.S. strike against Iraq. Armey, a leading conservative, noted that such an attack would be of questionable legality and in contradiction of American values.

As a result of this opening, the voices of more liberal critics can now also be heard. Democratic Senators like Carl Levin and Russ Feingold have entered the fray and in a concise, but thoughtful piece, Congressman Peter DeFazio enumerated for his constituents all of the questions he felt had not been answered by those who advocated rushing into war.

Somewhat on the defensive, Administration spokespersons have been forced to speak out and provide their answer to many of the questions now being raised by critics of the war. Clearly this matter is not resolved–but at last there is an open public debate.

Make no mistake, however, this issue will not go quietly into the night. Renewed efforts will be made to find an Iraqi connection with Al Qaeda, in general, or September 11, in particular. And allegations regarding the Baghdad regime’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction will be intensified. There may even be an effort to goad Saddam into making a foolish or provocative act. And, of course, there may even be pressure placed on Arab governments to support a U.S. action–since that would answer at least one of the critics concerns, that the U.S. is acting alone and is threatening regional stability.

But the bottom line is that, what was once seen as inevitable is no longer an open and shut case. The debate is real and it is growing. As a result, the Administration will not be able to so easily engage in a war in Iraq until it first wins the battle here in Washington. To do so it will have to answer tough questions being raised by influential critics.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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