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The Nation

Democrats Fire Away on War, Mideast

Those who opposed Iraq action escalate criticism of Bush and debate rivals who backed him. New disputes arise over Israel and Palestinians.

September 10, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

BALTIMORE — The nine Democratic presidential contenders turned up the heat on both President Bush and each other in a debate Tuesday night that highlighted enduring divisions over the war in Iraq and new disputes over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

During a forum repeatedly interrupted by hecklers, the candidates who opposed the war in Iraq escalated their criticism of the contenders who supported it. And Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut continued the offensive he began at a debate last week against former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, this time focusing on the Middle East.

Although Tuesday night's debate was intended to focus largely on domestic issues, it reinforced the sense that foreign policy issues are creating the clearest divides, and sharpest conflicts, between the rivals.

In rapid-fire answers at the end of the debate, most of the six candidates serving in Congress took a middle position on President Bush's new $87-billion request to pay for U.S. military and rebuilding efforts in Iraq.

Although Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a longshot in the race, said he would oppose the request outright, the other five indicated that they would support additional funding for the military mission in Iraq.

But several indicated skepticism about the money Bush requested for reconstructing Iraq, insisting that they first want to see the administration's plans for winning more international help -- both in paying for the rebuilding and in providing security for the country.

"I think we've got to protect the troops," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "But we can split the question and we can ask lots of questions about the rebuilding money."

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said he "would be prepared to vote no" on the request if the administration did not develop plans to share more authority for the reconstruction with the United Nations. Kerry added he did not believe that Congress should approve the funding without rescinding some of Bush's tax cuts.

The debate, cosponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Fox News Channel, was held at Morgan State University, a historically black college. Amid half a dozen interruptions from supporters of perennial fringe candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. -- some of whom were arrested -- the forum rambled over a wide spectrum of domestic issues, from health care and education to minority hiring. But none of these topics struck as many sparks as the discussion of foreign policy.

Just as in last week's debate in Albuquerque, the most pointed exchange Tuesday came between Lieberman and Dean. Last week the subject was trade; Tuesday night it was Israel.

The confrontation began when Dean was asked if he truly meant, as he suggested in comments at a rally last week, that the U.S. should not "take sides" in the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Of course I don't mean any such thing, that we are going to take a stance that belies our historical relationship with Israel," Dean said. "What I do mean is we need to be a credible negotiator, a facilitator for peace in the Middle East. And that means we have to be trusted by both sides."

Lieberman then said: "All of us here ... have quite correctly criticized George W. Bush for not standing by our values in our foreign policy and for breaking our most critical alliances. That, with all respect, is exactly what Howard Dean's comments over the last week about the Middle East have done."

Dean immediately fired back, saying: "I am disappointed in Joe. My position on Israel is exactly the same as [former President] Clinton's.... I think America needs to be an honest broker ... [and] it doesn't help Joe to demagogue this issue."

Although Dean's response drew loud applause, Lieberman responded: "I will simply say that Howard Dean's statements break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republicans and Democrats, members of Congress of both parties have supported our relationship with Israel based on shared values and common strategic interests. And Bill Clinton always agreed with that and I always agreed with him."

The Democratic candidates who opposed the Iraq war spent the evening on the offensive against rivals who had supported it. Dean, whose rise in the race was fueled by his opposition to Bush's policy on Iraq, called the war "a mistake." But he was more restrained in his comments than Kucinich, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and the Rev. Al Sharpton, all of whom have lagged in early polls.

Graham, who voted against last fall's congressional resolution authorizing force against Iraq, denounced the candidates who supported it -- Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "Those who voted for that [resolution] gave the president ... a blank check," Graham charged. "We cannot trust this president with a blank check."

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