With war seemingly imminent, Jewish members of Congress remain deeply divided on the wisdom and timing of an American attack on Iraq.
Jewish members of the House, nearly all of whom are Democrats, voted by a ratio of more than two-to-one last fall in favor of a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force, while Democrats as a whole voted three-to-two against the resolution.
Today, however, many of those who backed the resolution are publicly urging the president to give inspections more time or to hold off launching an invasion until he can secure approval from the United Nations Security Council or build a broader coalition.
“The president is rushing off to war in the midst of a great diplomatic failure on the part of this administration to create a greater coalition of nations to support our efforts,” said Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, a member of the House international relations committee. Wexler voted in October to authorize the use of military force against Iraq.
Wexler said that extending the inspection process, with a clear deadline and “benchmarks” to measure Iraq’s compliance, could “bring along a significant number of nations that will join the United States in our efforts.” Attacking now, he said, would be “rash and irresponsible.”
Democratic dissatisfaction with the president’s diplomacy is widespread even among those who favor prompt military action to unseat Saddam Hussein — with or without Security Council approval.
“Saddam has to be taken out,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, a proponent of swift action. But he added that because of Bush’s approach to foreign policy, “the picture of the super-ugly American re-emerges, big time.”
“We expect people to deal with us not because we are good, but because we are strong,” said Ackerman, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Middle East subcommittee.
Similarly, the office of Rep. Howard Berman of California, another Middle East subcommittee member, indicated that while the congressman favored an attack on Iraq, even without U.N. approval, he was unhappy with how the Bush administration has handled relations with NATO and the Security Council.
In all there are 26 Jewish members in the 435-seat House, including 24 Democrats, one Republican and one Independent, Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. At the time of last fall’s vote there were 23 Jewish Democrats and two Republicans. The Jewish Democrats voted 16-to-7 to authorize force against Iraq. The House Democratic caucus as a whole rejected the resolution 126-to-81. Sanders, the independent, voted no.
In the Senate, by contrast, Jewish Democrats were less likely than others in their party to vote for the use of force last October, with four supporting the Senate resolution and five opposing it, while overall Senate Democrats supported it by a margin of 29-21.
The current Jewish Senate delegation, 11 members in all, is slightly more hawkish on Iraq than it was last fall, with the death of firebrand liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, and the arrival of Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman and return of New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg.
Republican members of both houses of Congress overwhelmingly supported the authorization of force, including all three Jewish Republicans serving at the time, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and the now-retired Rep. Benjamin Gilman of New York.
Republicans continue to back the president for what Specter, in a statement to the Forward, called Bush’s “commendable leadership with the international community.”
“If the U.S. position had not been resisted by the French, who have significant economic interests in Iraq and who insist on being a dominant player, the U.S. could have led a united U.N. which might have led Saddam to go into exile or inspire Iraqi dissidents to overthrow him,” Specter said.
A handful of Democrats had kind words for at least some aspects of the president’s handling of the crisis. Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, while condemning what she called the administration’s “cowboy mentality,” was quick to praise Bush for seeking U.N. support.
“I commend the administration for seeking a second Security Council resolution,” Lowey said. “Letting Saddam Hussein continue to determine the pace of this process seriously threatens the future of the U.N. as a force for global stability.”
Lowey said her vote to support the use of force last fall was partly a tactical move, in order to boost American leverage over Saddam and increase American bargaining power in the Security Council.
“I voted for the resolution because I felt it was important for the administration to go to the U.N. and empower the U.N. and insist that the inspectors get back in,” Lowey said. “And I felt that the only way that Saddam Hussein would respond in any way was by the United States threatening the use of force and pushing the U.N. to get the inspectors back in.”
Meanwhile, many Jewish Democrats who opposed the use of force resolution last fall have remained vocal in their opposition to the administration’s drive for military action against Iraq. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who has questioned the need for a war, took particular aim at those who accuse war opponents of appeasing Saddam.
“People talk about appeasement and Hitler,” Frank said. “Well, Hitler was never subjected to any of these restrictions. [Saddam] is restricted to about 60% of his own country. We conduct flights over him. We are listening to everything he says. We have inspectors in there. His army is smaller than in 1991.”
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who voted to authorize force, indicated that he did not favor immediate military action without Security Council approval — but that the United States should not necessarily wait indefinitely, either.
“I voted to give President Bush the authority to use force if necessary in Iraq, because I believe the president needs leeway to operate and Saddam is a dangerous tyrant,” Engel said in a statement e-mailed to the Forward. “However, it was not a blank-check to simply go along with all of the president’s policies. While focusing on Iraq, the president seems to be ignoring North Korea, Iran and Syria.”
“Clearly, the president has not done a good job building international backing,” Engel said. “While it is certainly preferable to have Security Council support, in the end, the U.S. must do what it perceives to be in its own best interests.”
Rep. Brad Sherman of California, however, who voted for the use of force resolution, suggested that at this point discussing whether going to war now is a good idea is not that useful.
“The war is already locked in; those who say we’re going to support our troops once deployed — they’re deployed. The battle has already begun in secret ways already… And so at this point it’s a matter of supporting a fait accompli.”
With Reporting by Ami Eden and E.J. Kessler.