Act II, Scene I: Bush, Hussein standoff

'Was it conscience or politics that shaped the votes of members of Congress on the resolution that authorized the president to use force in the Persian Gulf? My feeling, as I watched hour after hour of the proceedings on TV, was that I was hearing conscience being expressed – more so than I had ever before witnessed on a congressional debate."

Those were words I wrote on Jan. 22, 1991, after then President George Bush received congressional authorization and, soon thereafter, launched the assault on Iraq.

Back then almost all of the possible Democratic presidential candidates coming out of Congress – Richard Gephardt, Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn, and Bob Kerrey – voted to deny the president this authority. So did the bulk of the Democrats in Congress.

Those men with their eyes on the presidency had to be aware at that time that by opposing this war they risked turning the voters against them. But despite this negative political possibility they said they just weren't ready to support an attack. Instead, they counseled US patience for at least a little while.

There are marked differences in Democratic attitudes toward authorizing the war now. This time the Democrats in Congress, in large numbers, have joined the Republicans in backing the president. Most notable was the new role played by Mr. Gephardt as he encouraged the Democratic Party to support the president. Another possible presidential candidate in '04 – Joseph Lieberman – has become an outspoken ally of President Bush on the war.

Back in January of 1991, there was no one who was predicting that the US would knock off Iraq in such short order. Indeed, the foot-dragging came from Democrats who were fearful that this war could turn out to be another Vietnam – with the US casualty rate running very high. So, as I saw it, that Democratic vote against authorizing war was a matter of conscience – an expression of caution. Not politics.

But as I also saw it back then, those voting "yes" to war authorization – mostly Republicans – were also voting their conscience as they took the position that a "no" vote would only give comfort to Saddam Hussein.

Sen. Al Gore's vote, after the '91 war authorization debate, is most interesting to reflect upon: He came down on the side of the former President Bush. Today, of course, Mr. Gore is distancing himself from the current president on several issues and particularly on the war.

Right after the '91 war debate in Congress, I wrote that "Al Gore, already reaching for another try at the presidency, might profit from being with the president all the way on the Gulf issue – perhaps gaining a decisive edge over the other Democrats in the race for the nomination."

Yet I went on to add that I felt that Gore's position then was shaped mainly by his conviction that a "no" vote would aid Saddam Hussein.

In any event, Gore didn't go very far with his presidential aspirations in '92 – although, as we know, Bill Clinton chose him as his running mate.

And now – just as I wrote back in '91 – I still think that conscience and not politics has been the determining factor in shaping the positions of members of Congress on the current war-authorization measure. Again, I've been closely watching the debate on TV. And, again, I've seen our representatives simply trying – as they see it – to do the right thing.

Indeed, it is my view that whenever the issue before Congress comes down to whether the US should go to war, it brings about that kind of vote – with conscience and conviction prevailing. Sometimes those voting don't have the right information – as when President Johnson fed Congress a falsehood at the time he asked for support for his Tonkin Gulf resolution. That obviously warps the vote.

I find another interesting parallel between the earlier George Bush war on Iraq and his son's proposed attack on the same country: Both presidents made up their minds quite early that the US must take on Saddam Hussein.

Right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, presidential advisers let it be known that George W. was considering Iraq as one of his primary antiterrorist targets. In fact, there was talk from those around Bush that the US was readying a surprise attack on Iraq. Instead, he moved first against Afghanistan.

I recall a Monitor breakfast where Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed that the president (then the elder Bush) and his counselors had lost patience with the economic embargo of Iraq and had decided to go to war. That Aspin disclosure was in late September of '90, giving reporters assembled that morning a real "scoop."

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