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Daschle Under Fire by Lawmakers for Criticism of Bush's Diplomacy

March 19, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With the nation on the brink of war, congressional Republicans on Tuesday accused Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) of going too far in criticizing the commander in chief.

They were responding to comments by Daschle on Monday that President Bush had failed "so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the remarks "may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said: "Fermez la bouche, Monsieur Daschle" -- French for "shut your mouth." Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused Daschle of "catering to the interest of his own party, at the expense of the broader national interest."

And at the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer accused Daschle of being inconsistent with prior remarks he has made about Iraq and national security issues.

Daschle stood by his comments.

"I don't know that anyone in this country could view what we've seen so far as a diplomatic success," he said, noting that Bush has put together a much smaller international coalition than his father did for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"A diplomatic success is having 200,000 international troops present instead of the 225,000 U.S. troops, which are present today," he said.

Citing his service as an intelligence officer in the Air Force's Strategic Air Command, Daschle added, "As a veteran, I always support the troops."

But, he added, "I do think we have to be honest and open in a democracy. I think to do anything less is unpatriotic."

It was the latest dust-up between congressional Republicans and Daschle, a leading political adversary of Bush.

Last year, Daschle drew GOP ire by suggesting that the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan could not be declared a success until Osama bin Laden was captured or killed. He also accused Bush of politicizing the Senate debate over creation of a new Department of Homeland Security.

But Daschle was among the many Democrats who in October voted for the resolution granting Bush authority to use force against Iraq if the White House deemed diplomatic efforts to disarm the country were not succeeding.

Since then, Daschle and a number of other lawmakers have grown uneasy about Bush's efforts on the diplomatic front. But Daschle rebuffed requests by some Democrats to push for another vote on Bush's authority to use force. And this week, most lawmakers have focused on expressing their support for U.S. troops preparing for battle.

"When military action looms, Americans expect leaders to unite behind the president and the troops," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "There will be plenty of time for criticism later."

Pitney suggested that Daschle, in his comments Monday, was responding to anger within the Democratic Party that its congressional leaders have been too supportive of Bush's policy toward Iraq.

"His reaction was understandable, but his timing was rotten," Pitney said.

Gary Jacobson, a UC San Diego political scientist, said, "The comments on both sides suggest that this war is more likely to exacerbate than to reduce the intense partisan conflict now typical of politics in Washington."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) defended Daschle, noting that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Republican Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio said: "Criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government."

Defending Bush, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said the approaching war is not the result of "the president's failure at diplomacy. It's [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein's continued recalcitrance."

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