A fuller Iraq debate rises – but late

As Bush and Blair seek global backing, critics – including Al Gore – are voicing objections.

At a crucial point in the confrontation with Iraq, the American public is generally closing ranks behind the White House but remains skeptical of the haste and the unilateral tone of the Bush administration's approach.

Broad criticism of a perceived rush to war by Al Gore and others this week may have come too late to change minds in Washington, if such a shift were ever possible. Congressional approval of a resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein appears foreordained. But depending on the course of events in the days ahead, it may not be too late for a wide-ranging public debate on the wisdom of war with President Hussein.

"The need for allied support, the need for congressional authorization ... the idea that the Iraq mission could undermine the war on terror: All of these things are deep concerns of the public," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Report.

In general the US public solidly supports using armed might to topple the current Iraqi regime. Some 64 percent favor such military action, according to Pew's latest figures.

A plurality of 48 percent would back such action even if it resulted in thousands of US casualties, according to Pew figures, with 36 percent opposed in such an instance.

Other polls produce similar figures. But these numbers do not mean that the nation is eager to fight – or even that it backs the manner in which the administration's anti-Iraq policy is proceeding.

A new Gallup survey finds that "it is clear that Americans want both United Nations and U.S. Congressional approval before such action is taken."

Furthermore, only about half of respondents to the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll approved of Congress passing a resolution that would give President Bush unlimited authority to respond militarily to Iraq whenever he feels it is necessary.

"The trend is probably towards support for the war," says Carroll Doherty of Pew, "but the public does want a vigorous debate and they want a lot of questions asked."

If such a debate occurs, it is unlikely to be strictly partisan. While some Democrats in Washington have been outspoken in their opposition to war with Iraq – Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California is one – most have been reluctant to criticize a popular president's actions.

Democrats are aware that the public generally sees them as the so-called "mommy party" – stronger on social issues such as Medicare than on national defense. They feel their party fell in public esteem following the congressional debate on the Gulf War, which many Democrats voted against and "which most Democrats now look back on with some embarrassment," says Ted Widmer, who was director of speechwriting at the National Security Council under President Clinton.

According to Pew, some 44 percent of the public believes the Republicans are the party best suited to running a war on terrorism, while 22 percent pick Democrats.

Mr. Gore, in taking a stand that is point-by-point critical of current policy, is setting himself apart not just from the GOP but from the current mainstream of his party as well.

In his speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Monday, Gore described Hussein as "evil" and noted that as a senator he himself had voted in favor of the Gulf War in 1991.

But he went on to say that he believed the administration had squandered the international goodwill felt for America in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks. He charged that political concerns were behind the administration's push for a congressional vote on an Iraq war resolution before the November elections.

His central criticism was that a US invasion of Iraq would distract the nation from a greater danger: the continued struggle against the remaining elements of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In political terms the speech seemed calculated to position Gore as the most antiwar voice within his own party. Other potential 2004 candidates, notably Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, have come out in favor of strong, quick action over Iraq.

Gore's speech also seemed unlikely to sway the debate in Washington. "I would say that once again Al Gore's timing is off, seriously off," says Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "If he had given the same speech a week ago, it could have been useful within the Democrat party."

But the points Gore made do mirror the primary reservations held by the public about the whole operation. In particular, the complaint that a war with Iraq might hurt the war on terror resonates with many voters, despite Pentagon insistence that such distraction won't occur.

"[Gore was] trying to get at that middle opinion of those who have reservations," says Mr. Doherty of Pew.

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