WASHINGTON — In a city where the talk is of when, not if, there will be war
with Iraq, a small group of Democratic die-hards in the House is trying to rally
opposition to military action.
Two dozen or so mainly liberal lawmakers say they view the current moves toward
war through the prism of their memories of Vietnam. Though they may be viewed
as outside the mainstream of even their own party, they are raising their voices
against an invasion, even if their leadership is not.
I think he is making judgments for his own election campaign as opposed to what
Democrats ought to be doing as a group here in Congress. He is leading us in the
Democrat of California
"I am very skeptical of this whole operation and have the feeling that it
has much more to do with oil than anything else," said Representative Jim McDermott,
Democrat of Washington, who added that his experiences as a Navy psychiatrist
treating Vietnam veterans remained fresh in his mind.
Mr. McDermott and 18 fellow House members stood on the terrace of the Cannon
House Office Building this week to proclaim their opposition to what they view
as a potential unprovoked assault on Iraq, without evidence that the nation poses
a dire threat. At times, the session seemed reminiscent of past antiwar rallies,
with the speakers warning of young Americans being sent to die on foreign soil
and urging that the country "give peace a chance."
"Naked aggression is not the American way," said Representative Marcy Kaptur,
Democrat of Ohio, who sharply criticized the motives of the Bush administration.
"America, wake up."
This week, these antiwar forces surveyed their Democratic colleagues on the
House floor on the issue. Some spoke out against the war in a closed meeting of
the Democratic caucus. They also met privately with Representative Richard A.
Gephardt, the Democratic leader, to reinforce the idea that there was diverse
opinion in the party on Iraq.
The lawmakers say they are determined to show that not all members of Congress
are falling in lock step behind the administration's call for authority to act
"We were not sent to Congress to be a rubber stamp," said Representative Barbara
Lee, who represents traditionally antiwar areas around Berkeley and Oakland in
Northern California and opposed authorizing use of force against terrorists after
the Sept. 11 attacks. "The essence of our democracy is debate."
The opponents concede that momentum is not on their side, with Congress moving
rapidly toward consideration of a resolution that would give the president authority
to act against Iraq. Other Democrats say this group is a narrow wing of the caucus
and hardly representative of the party's position on Iraq.
Some of the antiwar Democrats contend they have been marginalized by Mr. Gephardt,
who has been supportive of President Bush on his call for action against Saddam
Hussein. One of the Democrats urging caution on Iraq said their leader was letting
a possible presidential run steer his course.
"I think he is making judgments for his own election campaign as opposed to
what Democrats ought to be doing as a group here in Congress," said Representative
Bob Filner, Democrat of California. "He is leading us in the wrong direction."
Aides to Mr. Gephardt said that he was committed to his own view on the issue
but that he encouraged others to vote their conscience.
"Mr. Gephardt also appealed to the caucus not to question anyone's motives
whether they are for or against military action," a spokesman, Eric Smith, said.
Though most Democrats in the emerging antiwar coalition are from safe districts,
opposition to the president on this issue is not without political risks. Mr.
Filner, for instance, said that fighting a resolution on Iraq could cost him in
his San Diego district, which is home to many military personnel and retirees.
The Democrats, though, say they are hearing from constituents who want them
to question the administration and the Congressional leadership on the rationale
for action against Iraq.
"The people in my district are saying, `Where are the Democrats, where is
the opposition?' " said Representative Lynn Woolsey, another Northern California
Democrat who said mail and calls from district residents were running 200 to 1
against a war with Iraq.
Most of the opponents say the administration's push for action could shatter
international stability and leave the United States unable to credibly oppose
first strikes by other nations.
"What moral authority will we have?" asked Representative Bernard Sanders,
independent of Vermont, who said a pre-emptive attack could set a precedent that
would lead to "international anarchy."
The Democrats also contend that the cost of the war will detract from priorities
they say are more important to their communities, including drug coverage for
older Americans and education.
"This attempt to foment a war is really against the best interests of America,
it is against the spirit of the country, it is against the economic interests
of the people," said Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio and a
leader of the opposition.
The opponents often recall how the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which in effect
authorized the Vietnam war, was passed with little skepticism from Congress.
"I swore to myself that I was never going to be a Tonkin Gulf congressman,"
Mr. Filner said. "I think a lot of us have that going through our minds."
Mr. Kucinich also said he believed that Vietnam was a thread that linked the
war opponents. He still has a flier from his 1972 campaign for Congress with the
headline "Kucinich Says End the War."
He said the survey of Democrats found more resistance to a first strike across
a wider spectrum of lawmakers than he initially expected. There have been quiet
reservations expressed by Democrats close to the military who are hearing unease
from the uniformed services. In the Senate, most Democratic criticism has focused
on the wording of the administration's proposed resolution.
Mr. Kucinich has not given up hope of slowing the move toward possible war.
"The conductor might be yelling `all aboard,' but the train hasn't left the
station," he said. "This is an attempt to start a serious debate inside the party."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company