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A Question of War : Gulf crisis: Westside congressmen face a dilemma in deciding whether to support military action against Iraq.


The Persian Gulf crisis has left the Westside's liberal, Jewish congressional contingent in a difficult dilemma.

Throughout their political careers, Democratic Reps. Anthony C. Beilenson, Henry A. Waxman, Howard L. Berman and Mel Levine have been steadfast defenders of Israel and frequent critics of the use of American military force.

Now those two firmly held positions are on a collision course.

Within days, the four congressman, along with their colleagues in the House and Senate, likely will be called upon to vote on whether to authorize the use of U.S. military force against Iraq.

On the crucial question of war and peace, the usually prominent lawmakers have maintained a decidedly low profile.

As Tuesday's U.N. deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait nears, the Westside representatives were asked whether the time has come for America to use its military might against Saddam Hussein.

The answer for two of the veteran lawmakers is no.

In interviews this week, Beilenson and Waxman said they do not support a declaration of war at this time. Instead, they want to see economic sanctions against Iraq given more time to work. Levine declined to say how he intended to vote on a declaration of war, preferring to simply support the U.N. deadline. Levine said he would support the use of military force "only as a last resort." Berman could not be reached.

"At this point, there is certainly no excuse to cost American lives or additional billions of American dollars," Beilenson said.

But Beilenson, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has met with President Bush often during the crisis, believes that Bush is determined to act soon.

"From everything he has said to us, he is not feeling patient about this," Beilenson said. "I am convinced he will move militarily if someone does not succeed in getting Saddam Hussein to change his position in the next few days."

Waxman said he is not yet willing to support military action, particularly when diplomatic efforts may not be at an end. "I don't believe the case has been made for war now," he said.

However, Waxman does not rule out that possibility later if economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts fail to dislodge Iraq.

"My position is that war may very well be inevitable--the only vehicle for saving the region from a greater catastrophe at a later date."

Waxman said the issue is not simply Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

"Our goal has to be stability in the region and making sure that Saddam Hussein is limited, contained or removed from the ability to carry on aggressive actions in the Persian Gulf," Waxman said.

"The Iraqi war machine has to be dismantled through diplomatic negotiations if possible. If not, we may have to go to war."

Levine, who is considering a race for the U.S. Senate in 1992, was more bellicose.

"If diplomacy has clearly failed and sanctions are not going to accomplish what we all desire, I would support the President's use of air power to cripple Iraq's unconventional warfare capacity," Levine said Wednesday.

Levine was one of a dozen members of Congress who met with Bush on Wednesday for a briefing on the gulf crisis and on the talks in Geneva between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz.

"It's very important for Congress to back up the President in his showdown" with Hussein, Levine said.

Levine acknowledged that the gulf crisis puts Jewish congressional members and other staunch supporters of Israel in a difficult position. "It's a very tough issue for me," he said.

Democratic political consultant David Townsend said the Persian Gulf crisis has put many liberal, Jewish members of Congress in a tough spot between their very strong support for Israel, opposition to Saddam Hussein and long track record of being "pro-peace."

Townsend noted that the Westside lawmakers are "part of a generation that deplored the use of military force (in Vietnam) for very vague reasons." But, he said, that does not mean they are "pro-peace no matter what."

The Sacramento-based campaign adviser said many members of Congress also have been holding back in voicing an opinion about the Persian Gulf so they would not undermine diplomatic efforts to avert a war.

Townsend noted that Bush has done a good job of keeping "Israel out of the picture" despite efforts by the Iraqis to link Israel and the Palestinian issue to the gulf crisis in an effort to foster disunity in the multinational coalition that is seeking to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait.

Waxman and Levine said flatly that Hussein cannot be allowed to link those issues in any way.

Beilenson and Waxman insisted that the Constitution requires the President to seek a declaration of war from Congress, particularly in circumstances that can be foreseen.

"The President has to come to us, prior to using military force," Beilenson said. "If you don't ask Congress to declare war in this situation, it'll never happen." (In fact, Bush asked Congress on Tuesday for authorization to use military force.)

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