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Above the Patriotic Din

By Ruth Conniff, The Progressive, February 2002

As Bush expands the war on terrorism at home and abroad, the Democrats have been falling into line. Leading the pack of Bush supporters in Congress is Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut. Lieberman praised Bush's tough tactics but warned that the war on terrorism would not be over until Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

The former Vice Presidential candidate has been rattling his saber so loudly he actually provoked a counter-rattle from Iraq. Lieberman is leading a hostile campaign against some Arab countries, and he is provoking others against Iraq, in particular, said an editorial in Al Thawra, the newspaper of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Lieberman, who is also leading a campaign to become the Democratic Presidential nominee, was unavailable for comment since, his staff told me, he was traveling in Afghanistan. (That ought to send a shiver through the Al Qaeda network.) But his communications director, Dan Gerstein, explained that the Senator was not calling for a military invasion of Iraq. What he has said is that if we're going to fight a war on terrorism, you can't ignore the world's number-one terrorist, Gerstein said. Shoring up indigenous opposition to Saddam might do the job, Gerstein suggested.

But Lieberman's public stance--including his October 29 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, After bin Laden, We Must Target Saddam, praising President Bush and calling for widening the war--surely secures his place among Democrats as the biggest hawk on the block.

Not that other Democrats aren't determined to look tough. Let's not forget that every member of Congress with the sole exception of Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, supported the resolution authorizing the use of force to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So eager are the Dems to avoid comparison with cream puffs, they've left it to former Nixon speechwriter and rightwing pundit William Safire to carry the banner of civil liberties in the face of the Bush Administration's domestic spying operation and secret military trials overseas. Safire commented in a recent column in The New York Times that most liberal politicians dove under their desks for fear of seeming soft on terror. Not a peep out of Senator Hillary Clinton. Nothing but a wimpish waffle from the Majority Leader, Tom Daschle; and from Joe Lieberman, of all people, came an initial exhortation to try-'em-and-fry-'em that out-Ashcrofted Ashcroft.

Still, there are a few progressive souls in the party who are hoping to make their voices heard above the patriotic din.

Leave it to the poetic and philosophical Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, to denounce Bush's military tribunals on the floor of the House as Kafka's The Trial, writ large. Kucinich, the former boy mayor of Cleveland, still tousle-headed and slightly starry-eyed, seems positively other-worldly in cynical official Washington.

Back when he was a lonely voice opposing the bombing of Kosovo, Kucinich went on the pundit shows to suggest we reexamine some foreign policy doctrines--including the doctrine of an eye for an eye. Over the summer, he held a press conference to announce his idea for forming a Department of Peace.

So why did he vote for war in Afghanistan?

You know what? Our country was attacked, Kucinich says. There were a significant number of civilian casualties, and we had a responsibility to respond. I've never been for any military operation that causes civilian casualties. I spoke out against the bombing of Kosovo. I abhor any bombing of civilian areas, which has already occurred in this war. But the fact remains that we have an obligation to defend this country. And we have an obligation to distinguish between what constitutes the defense of a nation and what constitutes aggression against people who have not been involved in these attacks.

Kucinich recently signed a gently worded letter to President Bush suggesting that expanding the war beyond Afghanistan would be inappropriate without further debate in Congress.

In an interview, he goes further. When Congress voted for a response to terrorism, it did not vote for world war, he says. The attempt to try to use September 11 as license for attacking any country of choice is, I think, illegal.

(Other House members who co-signed letters to Bush reminding him that the Constitution forbids the President to unilaterally widen the war include Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Jim McDermott of Washington, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, George Miller, Lynn Woolsey, and Maxine Waters, all of California, and the independent socialist from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, among others.)

Kucinich, who decries bumper sticker jingoism, believes that authorizing the war against Afghanistan gives him and his colleagues standing. It's not the case that because some of us voted for a response, we can't talk about this, he says. On the contrary, because we said let's defend our country, we have credibility in saying what direction we think the response should take.

If Kucinich sounds a little defensive, at least he confronts the moral issues head on. I've never interpreted pacifism as you stand by when someone is trying to kill you. You have an ongoing, active effort to try to shape an environment that is conducive to peace, he says. I think it's a mistake to say, 'Hey, we're progressives, we can't be involved in any of this stuff.' What are you going to do? You're not going to defend the country? Hello! It's a question of how you do it.

Another thoughtful, if tortured, progressive in Congress is Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin. Baldwin has also raised questions about widening the conflict. The letter she co-signed came out the same day that Lieberman and John McCain sent their own letter, urging the President to go after Saddam Hussein.

Those are marquee names--Joe Lieberman and John McCain--so, of course, they got all the media coverage, Baldwin says. It bothers her that they are not arguing a clear link to September 11. . . . There are numerous other countries with ruthless leaders and weapons of mass destruction. It's not acceptable to say the way to deal with those is to flatten all those countries.

Lieberman's communications director concedes that the Senator has not tied Iraq to the September 11 attacks. That's not the case the Senator has made, Gerstein says. He's never predicated his arguments on focusing on Iraq on September 11. Furthermore, after checking with the military affairs analyst in the office, Gerstein agrees that the Bush Administration should seek another Congressional authorization in order to widen the war to Iraq.

Baldwin says military force used imprudently can cause greater danger. So has Bush used military force prudently so far, after that nearly unanimous authorization vote?

Goodness, says Baldwin, pausing to choose her words carefully. I would tell you that I don't believe I yet have and the American people yet have all the information that would allow us to say. Everything I hear from the mainstream media indicates that they have less access than ever to cover what's going on in Afghanistan.

So what is to be done?

With all we've heard out of the Administration and the members of Congress who favor expansion of the conflict to Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and the Sudan, there has to be a strong voice questioning that, the Congresswoman says. There was clearly a time for unity, but as I hear the call for expansion there needs to be a healthy debate and lots of voices questioning the wisdom of this.

Let's hope they make themselves heard.