WASHINGTON -- Now that the midterm elections are over, maybe the country can
get back to considering the wisdom of President Bush's determination to launch
America on a pre-emptive, first-strike war against Iraq.
But probably not.
Thanks to the Democratic legislative leaders, Congress before the elections
swallowed Mr. Bush's shaky argument that Saddam Hussein is an imminent threat
to the United States rather than allow the prospective war of "anticipatory
self-defense" to become an Election Day issue.
It was a matter of letting sleeping dogs lie, both in Congress and in the
country, as the congressional campaigning went forward with hardly a mention in
most House and Senate contests of Mr. Bush's plans to invade Iraq.
In the one state where a Senate candidate was refusing to ignore the issue,
Minnesota, Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash silenced forthright mention
of public unease about going to war without an Iraqi attack on American lives
On the day before he perished, Mr. Wellstone told listeners in a small rural
Minnesota restaurant: "You can't go into any coffee shop; people are
concerned about Iraq. They don't know what's going to happen. ... They're
concerned, and they should be."
If you bothered to ask voters in other states how they felt about their country
taking on another war while still fighting the war on terrorism, most were likely
to question the proposition.
Their reluctance came not from some rigid pacifist objection, but rather out
of uncertainty about the necessity or wisdom of such action.
Through this autumn of active congressional campaigning, one question -- why
now? -- resisted a satisfactory administration explanation for confused or unconvinced
voters. With the United Nations refusing to be stampeded into rubber-stamping
the Bush war proposal, there would have been plenty of time to debate the issue
in the campaign and let voters' voices be heard.
Even absent a serious public debate over the war scheme among congressional
candidates, questions about it at home, at the United Nations and even within
Mr. Bush's own administration have forced him to back off his urgent go-it-alone
insistence on "regime change."
Recalcitrant U.N. Security Council members France, China and Russia, and unease
and resentment among other U.N. representatives, have obliged Mr. Bush to reconsider
his earlier bullying, unilateralist posture while reaffirming his intention to
act if the international body won't.
But one lesson learned the hard way from the Vietnam War was that with a sizable
dissenting public at home, a president invites grief by engaging in military action
abroad amid confusion over purpose and justification.
As in the beginnings of the Vietnam War nearly four decades ago, anti-war
sentiment at home has been slow in developing into public protest despite substantial
street demonstrations here and in other major cities on recent weekends.
In Vietnam, U.S. involvement under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy
began small and in response to what was then seen as communist aggression against
a friendly regime in what was then Saigon.
The American public for years largely accepted it in the context of the Cold
War. But the street protests exploded only after the war had bogged down, when
U.S. involvement had mushroomed and increasingly large numbers of Americans were
coming home in body bags.
In the present case, prospective U.S. involvement is expected to be massive
from the start, with fierce urban warfare possibly bringing American casualties
sooner than later, and in larger numbers.
With the midterm elections over, the country more than ever needs the debate
over the wisdom and peril of pre-emptive war that was denied by evasive politicians
on the stump this fall.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column
appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun