That Curious War Smell

Every day the White House keeps its war-with-Iraq drumbeat on the front pages and evening newscasts is another day Democrats can't focus voters' attention on the sorry state of the economy, the disaster of deregulating corporations and White House ties with corrupt businesses.

The war timing smells of fraud. This war comes not from the military or the State Department, which knows an Iraq war will destabilize the Middle East and threaten popular Islamic uprisings against neighboring pro-Western Arab regimes. Instead, the White House, taking advantage of public fear since 9/11, thinks war with the boogie man in Iraq is a "wedge issue" that not only secures a Republican Congress this fall but also carries George W. Bush to re-election in 2004.

Democratic congressional candidates must talk about the kitchen table issues, which remain the top concern of the voters, but Democratic leaders also should let the public get a good whiff of the true motives of the White House in deciding, at this particular time, to let slip the dogs of war.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., got it right Sept. 20 when he said Bush's plans to invade Iraq are a conscious effort to distract public attention from growing problems at home. "This administration, all of a sudden, wants to go to war with Iraq," Byrd told the Senate, in a speech that was little noticed except by the Charleston Gazette. "The [political] polls are dropping, the domestic situation has problems. ... So all of a sudden we have this war talk, war fervor, the bugles of war, drums of war, clouds of war. ... Are politicians talking about the domestic situation, the stock market, weaknesses in the economy, jobs that are being lost, housing problems? No."

Byrd warned that the authorization Bush sought was another Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which in 1964 gave President Johnson broad powers to escalate the war in Vietnam, with disastrous consequences. "Nothing would please this president more than having such a blank check handed to him." Byrd said his belief in the Constitution will prevent him from voting for Bush's war resolution. "But I am finding that the Constitution is irrelevant to people of this administration."

Congress should listen to Byrd (and Al Gore, who scored Bush's war-mongering in a better-publicized Sept. 23 speech) and take a cold, hard look at the proposed war with Iraq, knowing that the American public is wary of expensive and open-ended military adventures. Start with the quicksilver estimates of the war's cost. The Bushites claim it could cost as little as $40 billion, but White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey in a moment of candor told the Wall Street Journal the war could cost $200 billion. That's quite a range, and skeptical Democrats have asked the Congressional Budget Office for a nonpartisan opinion.

The Pentagon tells lawmakers an Iraqi invasion would require about 250,000 troops, with Britain supplying as many as 30,000, compared with a deployment of 500,000 troops for the 1991 Gulf War, which cost $61 billion, the Washington Post reported. Allies paid all but $7.5 billion of the 1991 war, but US taxpayers will have to pay much more, if not all, of the cost of Bush's war. And since R's are still pushing more tax cuts for the wealthy, that means more budget cuts for domestic programs and middle-class taxpayers pick up the balance for Dubya's war.

Congress also should ask who will replace Saddam Hussein. Some contenders for the next ruler of Iraq "make the Butcher of Baghdad himself look good," David Pratt writes in the Sept. 22 Glasgow Sunday Herald. To prevent anarchy in the streets of Baghdad and oil facilities throughout the country, "the US needs its own strongman to put in Saddam's place," Pratt writes, but there is no military or political equivalent of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which replaced (or in many cases merged with) the fundamentalist Taliban.

Among the prime contenders for Saddam's replacement:

• Gen. Nizar Al-Khazraji, who led the 48-hour chemical weapons attack which poisoned and burned 5,000 Kurdish civilians in the northern town of Halabja in March 1988. He also reportedly kicked a little Kurdish child to death after his forces entered a village during the height of the repression in 1988. But a senior official in the US State Department said al-Khazraji, who defected in 1996, has "a good military reputation" and "the right ingredients" as a future leader in Iraq.

• Brigadier-Gen. Najib Al-Salihi commanded an armored division of Iraq's elite Republican Guard in the Gulf War. He helped put down the uprising against Saddam that followed the 1991 defeat. The crushing of the uprising caused 1.5 million people to flee their homes. He put down another rebellion in 1995 before defecting to the US, where he heads the CIA-sponsored Iraqi Free Officers Movement.

• Ahmad Al-Chalabi fled to London from Jordan in 1989 amid allegations he had embezzled millions from the bank he used to own. The collapse of the Petra Bank took the savings of thousands of its customers, and a 1992 trial in his absence sentenced Al-Chalabi to 32 years in prison. But he helped the CIA create the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992 and is a member of its executive council. The State Department recently found that about half of the $4 million it had given the INC was not properly accounted for, and cut off funding, Pratt notes, but the Pentagon and the White House picked up the tab.

These are the guys the CIA is grooming for leadership.

Senate Democrats also should take a long and careful look at the homeland security bill the president is demanding. Dubya says he will not accept a homeland security bill that bars him from hiring and firing employees at will. We don't think it is wise -- in fact we think it is damned foolish -- to give any president the authority to set up a patronage base in what ultimately will be the department of secret police. We don't understand why the Republicans would risk giving that kind of authority to a future Democratic president.

Vote D in Congressional Races

In Germany the Green Party is a growing electoral force that, because of proportional representation, provided center-left Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder with the margin he needs to remain chancellor. In the United States the Green Party is game, and it promotes a generally progressive populist agenda, but winner-take-all election rules here mean that the best its candidates can do is spoil the chances of center-left Democrats. By our reckoning none of the Green candidates for Congress have a realistic chance of winning this year, but they might help R's keep control of the House and regain the Senate.

That is enough reason to vote Democratic this November. Hold your nose if you must but, Green propaganda notwithstanding, the difference between having Tom Daschle as majority leader and having Trent Lott calling the shots only starts at the $1.3 trillion in tax cuts that the GOP Senate approved in 2001 before Jim Jeffords crossed the aisle. Now a 50-49 Democratic majority may not be able to undo that tax cut but committee chairs like Tom Harkin on Agriculture, Paul Sarbanes on Banking, Ernest Hollings on Commerce, Jeffords on Environment, Ted Kennedy on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions and Pat Leahy on Judiciary already have stopped many other bad things from happening.

In the House, the difference between GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert and deputy Tom "Hammer" DeLay and Democrats Dick Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi is also dramatic. With a Democratic takeover, House committee chairs would include progressives like David Obey on Appropriations, Henry Waxman replacing Dan Burton on Government Reform, John Conyers on Judiciary, George Miller on Resources, Nydia Velazquez on Small Business, Lane Evans on Veterans Affairs and Charles Rangel on Ways & Means. Other progressives will helm subcommittees. They might not be perfect, but they are a darn sight better than their GOP counterparts. With Bush in the White House we can't afford Republicans setting the agendas in the House and Senate any more. -- JMC

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