My Party Must Say No to War
Published on Tuesday, September 17, 2002 in the Washington Post
My Party Must Say No to War
by Hank Perritt

As a Democratic candidate for Congress in this season of war talk against Iraq, I deplore the failure of my party to raise its voice more clearly on issues of foreign policy and national security.

I believe, along with almost every voter I talk to in the well-educated and independent northern suburbs of Chicago, that unilaterally starting a war against Saddam Hussein is wrongheaded. President Bush's speech last week to the United Nations appears to offer a better approach: acting only in the context of broad international support to enforce specific U.N. inspection mandates. But the subsequent rhetoric of the administration suggests that it continues to contemplate unilateral military action to force regime change -- regardless of what the United Nations decides, and regardless of what action the Iraqi government takes.

Too many Democrats, while questioning the timing and the motivation for launching an attack, shrink from challenging the underlying premises of the administration's bellicose posture. Some other opinion leaders, mostly outside the ranks of Democratic officeholders and candidates, have begun to crystallize the arguments against unilateral action: no justification exists; an attack would cause a reaction that would threaten Israel's existence; it would undermine America's ability to lead international opinion; it would violate international law; it could mire the United States in a nasty, prolonged conflict; it would profoundly destabilize international relations to the detriment of U.S. interests because it would stimulate a rush to develop weapons of mass destruction to deter future U.S. action.

Unfortunately, Democratic Party pollsters and political strategists caution us candidates that we should not talk about foreign policy but instead focus on domestic issues. The national leaders of my party seem tongue-tied when it comes of matters of war and peace.

Of course we should talk about domestic issues, but we cannot abandon the foreign policy realm to the right wing of the Republican Party without undermining our claim to be elected to frame national policy. Foreign policy matters, regardless of what polls tell us about the level of public interest in the subject. We should have learned from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that America cannot isolate itself from ugliness that arises halfway around the globe, and that emphasis on sophisticated technology in strategic weapons and intelligence systems will not deter those who wish us ill. Unilaterally starting a war to drive Saddam Hussein from power will not win the war against terrorism; it will undermine it.

Consider the impact of the United States unilaterally starting a war to drive Saddam Hussein from power. Any national leadership fearful that it might incur the enmity of this or a future U.S. president will ask itself, "Am I next? What should I do to defend myself?" Two strategies provide answers. If it has the resources, it will invest in nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction to deter U.S. attack. Becoming a nuclear power or gaining the ability to use chemical or biological weapons would provide a shield against U.S. unilateralism because it would deter U.S. action against that country.

Not every country fearful of U.S. power has the resources to "go nuclear," of course. For those less-advantaged regimes, terrorism is an attractive alternative. Terrorism is an inexpensive, if crude, means of equalizing the balance of coercive power. State-sponsored terror can cause the United States to close embassies, withdraw forces and emphasize force protection rather than more aggressive military strategies.

Elected officials and candidates for public office have a responsibility to help voters understand what is important and what alternatives exist for dealing with problems. They do not meet their responsibility merely by reading polls and amplifying existing public opinion. They certainly do not meet their responsibility by pulling their punches because they fear the opposition will attack them.

Competing visions of American foreign policy exist: engagement, multilateralism and pursuit of civil society on the one hand, and unilateralism and emphasis on military coercion on the other. In the days that remain before the election, I intend to raise my voice in support of the first vision -- and against a unilateral, preemptive attack against Iraq. I wish I had more company.

The writer is the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 10th District of Illinois. He is on leave as dean and professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, the law school of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Perritt for Congress website

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