Capitol Hill Democrats with presidential ambitions have walked a tightrope since Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq last fall. On the Left are millions of staunchly antiwar Democratic voters, whose power in the primaries could quickly torpedo any candidacy deemed too hawkish. On the Right are millions of independents and moderate Republicans who Democrats hope to win over in the general election, but who are expected to ditch any challenger who flinches in the face of Iraqi threats.
As Colin Powell made his encyclopedic, soup-to-nuts presentation at the United Nations, the Democrats’ high-wire began to tremble a bit.
In their statements reacting to Powell, many potential and declared Democratic candidates said the presentation confirmed their original instincts and suspicions.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts perhaps reflected his party’s balancing act most clearly. While Kerry voted last autumn in favor of authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq, he has proven to be a vocal critic of Bush’s policies since then. “Show the world some appropriate patience in building a genuine coalition,” Kerry urged the president during a speech at Georgetown University a few weeks ago. “Mr. President, do not rush to war.”
Kerry’s comments suggested that Powell’s presentation represented a win for committed multilateralists like himself.
“I am gratified the administration finally came to the United Nations and made its case to the world,” Kerry said after Powell’s presentation to the U.N. “I’ve said that the hard diplomatic work and the work of educating America and the world were too long in coming. The road could have been easier had we chosen a multilateral strategy from the beginning, but nonetheless I am glad we’ve reached this moment in our diplomacy.”
Kerry also came close to saying that Saddam’s refusal to disarm justified military action.
“With such strong evidence in front of them, it is now incumbent on the U.N. to respect its own mandates, and stand up for our common goal of either bringing about Iraq’s peaceful disarmament or moving forward with the decisive military victory of a multilateral coalition,” Kerry said. “If Saddam Hussein does not disarm he will have chosen to make regime change the ultimate weapons enforcement mechanism.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has so far established himself as the “hawk” of the Democratic field, and his reaction to Powell reaffirmed that label, using rhetoric that could have come from President Bush or Condi Rice:
“Will this convince the American people and our allies to confront Saddam?” Lieberman asked. “It should, and I believe it will.… Patience is a virtue, but too much patience with dangerous lawlessness is a vice.… The American military is a sword. A sword without a sheath is dangerous. We all know that. But a sword locked in its sheath is useless and that also can be dangerous — because there are times when only the sword can protect our security and our liberty. We are rapidly approaching such a time with Saddam Hussein.”
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri voted in favor of the use-of-force resolution in the fall — and some in his party strongly criticized him for it. On Wednesday, he issued a three-sentence statement that emphasized his opposition to unilateral moves and the need for allies.
“I believe Secretary Powell made a compelling case that Iraq is concealing its weapons of mass destruction and is in material breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441,” Gephardt said. “I hope today’s presentation will strengthen our alliance with other nations about the course of action ahead. I encourage the administration to work with our allies during the upcoming weeks on how best to resolve this matter in the interest of our mutual security.”
Senator Bob Graham of Florida, former chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said Powell’s presentation confirmed his position that Hezbollah is one of the most pressing threats to America and must be dealt with promptly.
“I applaud Secretary Powell for finally making available to the world the information on which this administration will base its actions against Iraq,” Graham said in his released statement. “In my judgment, the most significant information was the confirmation of a linkage between the shadowy networks of international terrorists and Saddam Hussein, the true coalition of evil. Since October, the American intelligence community has been warning us that, when Saddam Hussein is on the verge of being toppled, he will be the most dangerous, including striking out against Americans here in our homeland and abroad.”
Graham, who watched Powell’s presentation from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he is recovering from heart-valve replacement surgery. He voted against the use-of-force authorization bill last fall.
“In my opinion, this linkage of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah – with a substantial number of trained terrorist operatives placed inside the United States – represents the greatest danger to our people,” Graham continued. “I am outraged that four months have passed with little effort having been made to increase the security of our people. I continue to urge the president, in the relatively few days left before the start of war with Iraq, to use every measure to protect Americans by dismantling these international terrorist organizations here and abroad.”
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who supported last fall’s use-of-force resolution, released a statement that echoed other Democrats in calling for the United Nations to act.
“I have long argued that Saddam Hussein is a grave threat and that he must be disarmed. Iraq’s behavior during the past few months has done nothing to change my mind,” Edwards said. “Secretary of State Powell made a powerful case. This is a real challenge for the Security Council to act. Saddam Hussein is on notice.”
All of these comments came after Security Council members Russia, China, and France issued their initial reactions to Powell’s presentation, calling for weapons inspections to continue in Iraq. None of the Democrats tackled the question of what the U.S. should do if the United Nations doesn’t act.
However, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean won’t face that question. He said the Bush administration has yet to make clear the need for immediate, unilateral military action, even after Powell’s presentation.
“Terrorism around the globe is a far greater danger to the United States than Iraq,” Dean said. “We are pursuing the wrong war.”
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several papers across the country, including the Boston Globe.