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Top Democrats Back Bush on Waging Iraqi War

Mideast: Hawkish consensus among possible presidential contenders could boost fortunes of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

September 18, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In rapid succession, the leading Democrats considering a race against George W. Bush in 2004 are lining up behind the president's push for possible military action against Iraq.

Since Bush's speech last week to the United Nations, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) have made clear they would back the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, while House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has suggested he would, as well.

Sources close to former Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, say he will shortly endorse the prospect of military action. Even Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has consistently raised questions about a potential strike against Iraq, appears to be moving toward supporting force, sources close to him say.

This hawkish consensus could leave an opening for a so-called peace candidate in the developing Democratic race. At the moment, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who's openly exploring a presidential candidacy, appears the most likely to audition for that part. The little-known Dean has been more critical of possible military action than any other potential candidate.

That could help him gain a foothold in Iowa, site of the first caucus in January 2004 and traditionally a state where antiwar sentiments run high among Democratic activists. But, on both substantive and political grounds, most leading Democrats appear to have concluded that opposing action against Hussein could be an insurmountable burden to carry into a 2004 race.

"There is an opportunity in the primaries for an antiwar candidate, particularly in Iowa, but that disqualifies you for the general election," said a top aide to one of the likely 2004 candidates.

That sentiment--which has quickly become conventional wisdom among Democratic strategists working with the possible 2004 contenders--represents a marked change from 1991. At that time, many leading Democrats opposed then-President George Bush when he sought congressional approval for the use of force to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait, which it had invaded.

Since then, several factors have shifted the Democratic attitudes about confronting Hussein.

One is the successes of the U.S. military in the 1990s: After the armed forces' decisive performances in the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Afghanistan, few officials in either party are expressing the concern that a war with Iraq could become a "quagmire"' or another Vietnam--a common contention from critics before the Gulf War.

"This is likely to turn out more painful than people anticipate, but nobody believes it is going to last indefinitely," said a former top national security official in President Clinton's administration.

Second, Clinton's use of force in Bosnia and Kosovo--added to the sheer passage of time--has eroded the resistance to military intervention burned into the party by Vietnam. "There was much more of a reflexive view that we're not the party of war" during the Gulf War debate, said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "The shadow of Vietnam was still there, and I don't sense any of that anymore."

Finally, and perhaps most important, the terrorist attacks of last year have convinced many Democrats that it is too dangerous--both politically and substantively--to permit Hussein to move toward development of weapons of mass destruction.

This change in emphasis is most apparent among the Democrats considering the 2004 race.

On Thursday, the president asked the U.N. to demand Iraq's compliance with resolutions requiring disarmament and to authorize "action" if Hussein resists.

Within hours of Bush's speech, Edwards delivered a statement on the Senate floor declaring that he would support unilateral military action to remove Hussein from power if the United Nations balks.

That same day, Gephardt--who earlier this year had endorsed military intervention--said the U.S. must "deal with this ... diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must."

One day later, Lieberman, who has been perhaps the most aggressive Democratic advocate of a military strike, endorsed military action with or without the U.N. "If we lead, I am confident that many other nations will come to our side," he said.

Gore, who supported the resolution authorizing force in the Gulf War as a senator, hasn't spoken publicly about Iraq since Bush's speech.

In a speech earlier this year, Gore urged a "final reckoning" with Hussein. But in an appearance before college students this summer, he struck a more cautious note. While he said he would support replacing Hussein, he warned, "if the rest of the world does not see what it regards as a sufficient provocation to justify an invasion by the United States, then the diplomatic costs would be extremely high."

Now, sources close to Gore say he is planning to declare support for military action, but to urge that the United States act with a coalition of allies.

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