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The Senate's lame doves; why they failed to stop the war.

James Bennet is an editor of the Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Elliott Beard and Sean O'Sullivan.

Why they failed to stop the war

Those who spent a large part of the days leading up to January 16 in arguments over whether the U.S. should go to war with Iraq sooner, later, or not at all-arguments that flared up like grease fires in the middle of previously pleasant conversations around the dinner table, on the phone, in bars-may be surprised to learn of the one forum that managed to stay above the fray: the United States Senate. Somehow, both on the Senate floor and off it, the members of the greatest deliberative body in the world pretty much avoided getting dragged into messy debates with each other about the efficacy of sanctions, the validity of the Munich analogy, the staying power of the coalition.

This is not to say that senators didn't dig deep into their own souls, agonizing over what Robert Byrd, for one, called the most important vote of his 39-year congressional career. In fact, it's when you assume that most senators did agonize, did call upon their years of experience and their gut instincts in reaching their decisions, that their failure to try to guide others to the mountaintop seems most odd. When you further consider what was at stake-as Dale Bumpers declared, "The need for thoughtful, sensible debate has never, never been greater"-this failure begins to seem not merely odd, but outrageous.

From Thursday, January 10, through Saturday the 12th, Congress met to consider whether to grant George Bush the authority to take the country to war once the UN Security Council's deadline expired. Those days are widely regarded as having restored much of the faded luster of both houses. David Broder summed up that view, writing, "One thing on which everyone could agree . . . was that Congress-that familiar whipping boy-had dealt with the issue of authorizing the use of force in a manner befitting the gravity of the subject. The weekend debate was civil and somber, always serious and often eloquent." Certainly, in the Senate, it was somber, serious, and eloquent. And no doubt it was civil. But by any reasonable standard, it was not debate.

The curious antidebate tenor of the proceedings was established on day one. There was a sharp, promising exchange between Senators Paul Sarbanes and Arlen Specter over whether Secretaries Dick Cheney and James Baker had declared that sanctions had failed. Joe Biden took the floor to make his prepared statement, but Tom Harkin of Iowa, evidently excited by his colleagues' argument, asked Biden for 30 seconds to raise a couple of related points. Here's how the ensuing colloquy appears in the Congressional Record. Harkin began enthusiastically:

Mr. HARKIN. Mr. President, again, I was hoping we might get into these kinds of colloquies on the floor. I know senators want to give their speeches and express their views on this issue, but I hope that we will have enough time to be able to engage in these kinds of colloquies on the Senate floor to ferret out information that is false or inaccurate, or whatever, and correct the record, that sort of thing.

I want to respond to a couple of things that the distinguished senator from Pennsylvania [Specter] said, for whom I have the greatest respect.

Mr. DANFORTH. Mr. President, a parliamentary inquiry. Who has the floor?

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The senator from Delaware.

Mr. DANFORTH. I object to the senator from Iowa making speeches on the time of the senator from Delaware.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The unanimous consent was made and, without objection, it was agreed to.

Mr. DANFORTH. Mr. President, what was the request?

The PRESIDING OFFICER. For the senator from Iowa to be recognized for 30 seconds.

Mr. DANFORTH. How much of that time remains?

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The 30 seconds have expired. The senator from Delaware is recognized.

Mr. BIDEN....

Oh, well. Thus swatted down, Harkin, who together with Brock Adams had bravely challenged the majority leader to get the debate scheduled in the firs place, never had the bad manners to try to mix it up on the floor again. The Sarbanes-Specter exchange was one of only two animated back-and-forths between two senators in the three days of speeches (the other came Friday morning, between Specter and Jeff Bingaman). The absence of debate worried some of the participants. "One of the concerns that this senator has is that in the course of the debate today, there have not been very many senators on the floor and there has not been the kind of exchange which I think a matter of this gravity deserves," said Specter on Thursday. ". . . I am hoping we can get into this question in terms of discussion with the senators who are supporting the so-called Mitchell resolution. . . ."

But of the colloquies that took place in the subsequent days, most were intended to bolster the original speaker; those that were critical of the speaker's points never got very far. For example, consider Harkin's next foray into colloquy, on Friday. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, one of the senators said to be undecided earlier in the week, had declared in his statement, "I think the Nunn approach of a sustained use of sanctions is the way to go." Nevertheless, he felt that the president had yoked the nation to his policy and it was too late to back out. You might have expected someone to get up and vigorously press a point Biden made the day before, that "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Instead, Harkin noted that during the Nunn hearings, General David Jones said that drawing down some of our troops and moving to a rotation policy would not be perceived as a sign of weakness.

Mr. JOHNSTON. I would observe I agree with General Jones, but I can tell you the president of the United States does not. Mr. HARKIN. I tend to associate myself with the senator's remarks. Thank you.

That's debate? Right after Harkin's remark, Sam Nunn launched into his floor speech, which was very convincing-except that he started out by surrendering: "[I]f the Nunn-Mitchell-Boren-Byrd resolution gets 20 votes, we are going to add one vote from the senator from Louisiana who is with us in spirit." That seems like a pretty poor substitute for getting him to join in the flesh.

In the three days of debate," there were three colloquies on the floor that engaged four or more senators. One of these-the high point in those three days--2ocurred after Nunn spoke, when two senators (Specter and John Warner) challenged him on various issues, while one (Donald Riegle) asked him to expand on a point he had raised. The other two arguments weren't about sanctions, or Saddam, or the alliance with Syria. They were both about Senate procedure: who was going to speak when. For the usually pugnacious Barbara Mikulski, of all people, that was how it should be: "Then there are those saying: Where is the debate? When are they going to get in an argument?... Mr. President, that is not the way th body is conducting itself. I am proud to have been p of this discussion that I have heard. I see that my co leagues here do not want to argue with other senators.

No one would deny that many senators' speech were wise and moving. But they were also often flatly contradictory. And since the senators didn't ca each other on their varying conclusions, grappling with one another's facts and interpretations as Sarbanes and Specter started to do on the first day, those following at home it was hard to tell who was right; among those watching from the floor, it was evidently a foregone conclusion that no one would change his mind. It was like spending hours watching two exquisitely trained prizefighters, back to back, shadow-boxing.

Hawks in flight

This absence of floor debate would seem less significant if every senator were absolutely convinced of his position, or if senators were vigorously trying to persuade one another out of the public's eye. But many senators on both sides did express grave doubts about their votes, and there were no friendly arguments taking place in smoke-filled rooms backstage.

Johnston wasn't the only senator to vote with the president while saying he preferred to rely on sanctions. James Jeffords and Al Gore expressed the same sentiment. Specter himself said, "Had I my preference, I would not have opted for a January 15 date, and I would have given sanctions more of an opportunity to work." Frank Murkowski, in explaining his decision to authorize using force, said he was not advocating abandoning sanctions: "For those who believe in the use of sanctions, as I do, the only responsible action to take now is to grant the president his request for a realistic threat of force." And a few of those who expressed confidence in their pro-force votes nevertheless put forth such lightweight arguments-Chuck Robb and Trent Lott come to mind-that one has to believe that, after a few minutes alone with Nunn, Pat Moynihan, or Bob Kerrey, they might have begun to see the light.

No less a GOP luminary than Bob Dole declared he was not trying to give Bush "a license to see how fast we can become engaged in armed conflict.... I want our president to understand this is not some hunting license, that this is to strengthen his hand for peace, not war but for peace." Later, he added, ". . . I think th bottom line is that this is not a blank check, as far this senator is concerned. I intend to use my influence if any, in every way that I can to find some peaceful way to resolve the current crisis. It just seems to me that we authorize, we do not mandate. We do not say that it has to be today, tomorrow, or next week." Of course, the bombs started falling four days later.

These men didn't sound like hawks. None of them seemed as committed to war as, we subsequently learned, George Bush had been for months. Is it so hard to imagine that a respectful heart-to-heart talk with a valued antiwar colleague might have swayed the three votes that would have meant continued sanctions rather than war?

Red badge or scarlet letter?

But in the modem Senate-with senators smothered by staff, wrapped up in fundraising, constantly on the move-such heart-to-hearts are rare events, even, evidently, when the issue is a declaration of war. In this case, the majority and minority leaders repeatedly made clear that they were treating each senator's decision as a vote of conscience," to be cast free of all partisan pressure. There would be no vote counts, no arm-twisting. That seems right, although the White House did not act quite so nobly. What's much harder for an outsider to understand is why individual senators who strongly opposed war-who believed, as Nunn put it, that they would not "be able to look the parents, the wives, husbands, and children in the eye and say that their loved ones sacrificed their lives for a cause vital to the United States"-Aid not go door-to-door trying to help their peers recognize that desperate morality gap.

Senators did discuss how they were planning to vote and why, but no one tried to change anybody else's position. According to Senator Paul Wellstone, "If there was a concerted lobbying strategy, I didn't see it. I don't think it took place." Senator Jeffords says that in the days leading up to the vote, he got one call from the Mitchell-Nunn coalition. He can't remember who made it. An aide to Harry Reid of Nevada, one of the Democrats to vote with the president, recalls that his senator had one phone conversation with Mitchell, but they "left it up in the air, because he hadn't decided."

Senator Kent Conrad says that there were "intense discussions," but "I didn't see a single senator trying to persuade another senator--even senators who took a different view, I didn't see anyone questioning them or upbraiding them." An aide to Senator Charles Grassley, one of the Republicans to break with the president, says that "once he made public his position [on Thursday before the vote] he did not take calls from anyone or see anyone.... He felt it was a personal vote, and he wanted to avoid the influence of his colleagues." And to avoid influencing them, apparently. This was consistent with the Democratic leadership's approach. According to George Mitchell's press aide, Diane Dewhirst, Mitchell "would discuss [the issues] with other members of the Senate who were of a like mind." She then offers this cold comfort: "It was virtually the same discussion and debate as occurred on the Senate floor."

"I found that people just felt that this was such a critically important vote that they respected everyone else coming to a decision, even if it was a decision different from theirs," says Conrad, giving his version of the prevailing Capitol Hill explanation for this absence of influence. That sounds perfectly sensible ... until you consider that, at least off the Hill, it's usually the reverse. That is, the more critically important the issue, the more fervently you're likely to try to persuade others to see things your way. But on today's Hill, issues are truly "critically important"-in the sense that just voting your conscience, instead of winning, isn't good enough--only if constituents' votes, a contributor's campaign donation, or one's own prestige is on the line.

In the end, the most striking thing about the anti-war antilobby is not how unusual it was, but how similar it was to that of the Senate doves 20 years ago. Even after American ground troops had been fighting and dying in Vietnam for five years, anti-war senators were still genteelly adhering to the decorum of the Senate, still making speeches instead of trying to make policy. Now once again the Senate doves have protested too little and acquiesced to war. Certainly a vote up or down on war and peace should be a matter of individual conscience. But it is a strange moral code that treats as a violation of conscience any efforts to save others from making, at the nation's expense, what you believe is a tragic mistake.
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Title Annotation:Persian Gulf War
Author:Bennet, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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