Soft debate surfaces on terror war

Democrats raise doubts, risking 'unpatriotic' label.

Some five months into the war on terrorism, the first stirrings of discontent are appearing in Washington over how far to expand the conflict and even over basic goals of the campaign.

Some Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been taken aback by expansion of US military aid to Yemen, Georgia, the Philippines, and other far-flung countries.

At the same time, the revelation of a "shadow government" set up far from the Beltway in case of catastrophic attack surprised many in Congress, and reemphasized how little influence they have over the course of events.

Yet even mild stirrings of discontent have been fiercely denounced by Republicans as something just short of unpatriotic. The backlash illustrates a truism of democracy: In wartime, the normal rules of give-and-take politics don't always apply.

"Republicans are trying to make the case that Democrats have violated the first commandment of politics during wartime: Thou shalt not criticize the commander in chief," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst with the Hudson Institute. "They're hearing from Democratic ranks increasing frustration that their leaders are not being bold enough."

So far, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and other top Democrats are limiting their criticism to calls for more consultation and information. No one is saying publicly that the war is a mistake or is failing in its objectives.

Mr. Daschle, for instance, last week called on President Bush to clarify his goals in expanding the war, including how he defines success. At first glance, the questions seem tepid, especially when compared with the fierce objections lawmakers raised early on to US commitments in places like Bosnia and the Gulf.

But Republicans reacted quickly to what they describe as an undermining of the war effort. "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field!" fired back Senate GOP leader Trent Lott. House Whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas called Daschle's comments "disgusting."

To a certain extent, the debate over the shape of the war from here was inevitable. The US is moving into the more amorphous and difficult Phase II of the campaign, after the relatively easy initial vanquishing of the Taliban. It could involve far more US troops and a far longer commitment - very likely on multiple fronts.

Moreover, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan remains unstable itself: US forces yesterday engaged in the third day of fighting against Al Qaeda rebels in the mountains - the biggest assault since the siege on Tora Bora. One US serviceman was killed in the fighting Friday.

YET the undercurrent of debate also reflects an apparent change in political calculus on the part of Democrats. Early on after the Sept. 11 attacks, party leaders agreed there would be no public criticism of the war effort, but that on issues like the economy, tax cuts, and more recently Enron, there would be no hesitation. With both houses of Congress up for grabs in 2002 elections, Democrats needed some issues to run on.

But with the economy showing signs of bouncing back, Democrats lost one of their main issues. Nor have subjects like energy policy, campaign finance, or the ties of Enron executives to the White House given them an edge. And recent polls signal that soaring public-approval ratings for Mr. Bush's conduct of the war may be enhancing GOP electoral prospects this fall - just as some of Bush's strategists, such as Karl Rove, had hoped they would.

That's one reason a number of top Democrats are suddenly going public with concerns. In hearings last week, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia questioned the administration's "expanding agenda" on the war. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he threatened to stop writing "blank checks" for a larger war effort that had not been adequately explained.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complained that he, too, felt the administration wasn't consulting enough with Congress.

The strongest words came from Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a likely presidential candidate in 2004. "My message to Trent Lott and Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, each of whom did not have to endure the war in Vietnam ..., the lesson I learned in that war is: The best way to defend American democracy and our soldiers is to ask the right questions at the right time," he said on a fundraising trip to New Hampshire.

Still, how to weigh in on how presidents conduct wars has never been easy or obvious for Congress. For months during the runup to the 1991 Gulf War, lawmakers insisted they had a role to play in the decision to fight Iraq. They did not approve a resolution to use force, however, until four days before hostilities began. During the Clinton years, the GOP-controlled House voted to block any deployment of US troops in Bosnia, but backed off once a peace agreement was reached.

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