WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sen. Paul Wellstone said Wednesday that he is ready to
vote against any plan to allow the United States to launch unilateral strikes
against Iraq, but he indicated that he would support the use of force if it's
approved by the United Nations.
"I do not believe we should do it alone," said Wellstone, D-Minn.
He said he will oppose President Bush's request to use all means necessary
to disarm Saddam Hussein.
Wellstone acknowledged that the plan is widely popular in Congress and said
it's likely to be approved by a wide margin. He called it "a life-or-death question
for people" and added: "I'm not 38, I'm 58. And at this point in my life, I'm
not making any decision that I don't believe in."
Wellstone, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected
to be among the first to give a speech when the Senate formally begins its debate
on Iraq today.
His staff was putting the finishing touches on his speech last night. After
agonizing over the issue for weeks, Wellstone broke the news to some of his staff
members Wednesday morning. "We'll just let the chips fall where they may," he
His position, which ends a long guessing game on Capitol Hill, carries political
risks. On Nov. 5, Minnesota voters will decide whether to elect Wellstone to a
third term. His Republican opponent, Norm Coleman, is backing the president, and
some observers had speculated that Wellstone would end up backing Bush for political
Wellstone said it would be a lie, "with a capital L," to say that he has not
thought about how his position will affect the Senate race, which is in a virtual
tie, according to the polls. But in the end, he said, he had little choice.
"With five weeks to go, at the end of 12 [years] in the Senate, of course I
wonder what the effect will be," he said. "To me, this is the personally and intellectually
honest decision, and that's the one I should make. And I don't really think I
have any other choice but to make it, because how could you do otherwise? It's
a life-and-death question."
Minnesota's other senator, Democrat Mark Dayton, has yet to announce how he'll
vote. Last week he accused Bush of trying to force Congress to vote too quickly,
and he said he wouldn't make a final decision until it's required. A head count
of the 10-member Minnesota delegation last week revealed five members were opposed
and five were undecided.
"These are times that try our souls," Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., one of those
who remains undecided, said Wednesday. He said decisions to send young men and
women to war are decisions that weigh heavily on members of Congress, adding:
"Over this weekend, I will be praying for the wisdom of Solomon."
Wellstone, at times emotional, offered a preview of his speech during an interview
in his Capitol Hill office. He is expected to say that "acting on our own might
be a sign of our power" but that "acting sensibly, in concert with our allies
and with bipartisan congressional support, would be a sign of our strength."
Wellstone called the president's plan "a profound mistake" and said he will
outline the consequences of it during his speech.
"What he's asking for is what worries me the most," he said. "I don't want
this to be open-ended right now."
In his speech Wellstone is expected to call Saddam "a brutal, ruthless dictator
who has repressed his own people, attacked his neighbors and remains an international
In the interview he said the United States should call on the U.N. Security
Council to pass a resolution that focuses on disarmament and puts arms inspectors
on the ground in Iraq. If that goal is not achieved, he said, then the resolution
should make clear "there will be consequences, which include the use of appropriate
He said that whether the United States acts alone or as part of an international
coalition is "a night-and-day difference" and that the United States should first
insist on "all of the diplomatic heavy lifting."
"That's what statesmanship is all about," he said. If the United States acts
alone against Saddam, it will "enable him to unite a coalition against us," he
Wellstone opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but he said he has voted to
support military action in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
"To me, it's always the last option, and that's still my belief," he said.
"We're talking about a lot of sons and daughters, a lot of Minnesota sons and
daughters that could be in harm's way. And I think it's extremely important for
the United States to do this the right way, and not the wrong way."
While the Senate is likely to give Bush strong support, Wellstone said "the
dynamics could shift" if the debate goes on for a week or two and more senators
begin hearing from constituents. Wellstone staff members said calls and letters
are running overwhelmingly against unilateral military action in Iraq.
The issue was on the minds of many Minnesotans who talked with Wellstone Wednesday.
During a brief meeting in Wellstone's office, Wilbur Liebenow, a retired civil
engineer from Shoreview, told the senator that launching preemptive strikes against
Iraq would simply "stir the pot," adding: "Once we do it, what do we do then?"
During a teleconference call with journalism students at the University of
St. Thomas, Wellstone responded to a question on Iraq by saying the cost of a
war would be "enormous" and put "a great strain" on the U.S. economy.
Wellstone said the Iraq issue is drowning out debate over the economy, mental
health issues and other legislation that he's trying to advance. While Dayton
and others have suggested that the timing of the debate is partly driven by a
White House desire to swing the election toward Republicans, Wellstone said he
hopes that's not the case.
"Would I rather the focus be on putting corporate crooks in jail? Yes."
© Copyright 2002 Star Tribune