War by Ballot (or Not)

The GOP is trying to paint the elections for Congress in November as a sort of referendum on the Bush option to defang Iraq by war.

Polls already show qualified public support for the president's campaign against Saddam Hussein. But an informal GOP national platform aims to draw a line in the sand on war.

That can be dangerous in politics. But if Republican candidates can refrain from painting as "unpatriotic" or "soft on Hussein" those rivals who doubt the Bush strategy, then playing on this campaign theme might help de-muddle the debate and send a clearer message to Congress and the world about US resolve.

Campaign debate, followed by voting that actually changes many of the players in Washington, is the bedrock of democracy – not governance by polls.

Even though Mr. Bush won the presidency and is in charge of foreign affairs, he can't ignore the ballot results of a midterm election, especially one that will likely upset the power balance between the parties in Congress.

Even before the November vote, Congress may need to act and authorize the use of force against Iraq. Incumbents can easily judge the political mood as war-stumping GOP candidates try to sway voters.

War as a political football is nothing new. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt used war as a campaign issue, asking voters not to "change horses in midstream" and to reelect him and his party. Richard Nixon won in 1968 by claiming he had a secret peace plan for the Vietnam War.

George W. Bush, who campaigned in 2000 to end a US role in settling other nations' disputes by war, has been forced into war by Sept. 11. He now even talks of bringing democracy to the Middle East by ousting Hussein.

The president, by force of events, has become an accidental Wilsonian.

In this election, Americans can now decide whether Hussein is a "grave and gathering" danger, as Bush calls him, and approve a preemptive, defensive war.

That's not a question of patriotism but a question of assessing risk.

The ballot box is better than a poll question in deciding whether to risk US soldiers in ending the risk of an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction being set loose upon the world.

On such a critical issue, Republicans must respect the views of opponents and voters who respectfully disagree – without name-calling.

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