Jewish Pols Split On Iraq

With Congress set to pass a sweeping resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, Jewish lawmakers are pretty much where the Jewish community is: united in concern about Saddam Hussein but divided about the best way to eliminate the threat he poses.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the important Senate Armed Services Committee, has emerged as an important advocate of caution and has promoted alternative legislation that would narrow the terms of the congressional endorsement.
But Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has become the administration’s Democratic point man in the Senate. While stressing it would be preferable to have allies in any attack, the lawmaker and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate has said that the longer America waits, the more dangerous Saddam becomes.
But Lieberman has also
argued the administration must give greater attention to building a more democratic post-Saddam Iraq. “We cannot be content tearing this brutal dictatorship down, we must also help build something better in its place,” Lieberman said in a speech to the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Other Jewish lawmakers run the gamut from strong support for the administration demand for sweeping war powers to outright opposition. “I was with several [Jewish] colleagues the other day, and someone commented that we are all over the map,” said one this week.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.) says he supports the administration’s demand for an unequivocal resolution, even though constituent mail is “running 150-1 against going to war. And many other members are hearing the same thing.”
Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Tom Lantos, both California Democrats, are strong backers of the resolution. During House debate on the administration resolution, Lantos referred to his own past as a refugee from the Nazis.
“I abhor war in the way only a survivor — and a grandfather of 17 — can,” he said. “But … if the costs of war are great, the costs of inaction and appeasement are greater still.”
But Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) were among 19 House Democrats who came together to speak out against the president’s war plans.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) has been vocal in opposition to “unilateral and pre-emptive” U.S. action. “I have no question that Saddam and his deadly arsenal have to go,” she said in an interview. “But it would be wrong to lead the nation into a unilateral, pre-emptive war until we have exhausted all the opportunities for international and UN action.”
And she said her opposition takes Israel’s needs into account because “If the United States makes a decision to go it virtually alone, we will destroy the anti-terror coalition we have created after 9-11 and put ourselves and Israel at greater risk.”
Early this week, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the only Jewish Republican in the Senate, had not committed to supporting the resolution, although congressional sources say that when the vote is taken he will probably back the president. Ditto Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said that most Jewish lawmakers are somewhere in the middle — supporting strong action against Iraq, but unsure about the best course of action and unwilling to grant the president unlimited powers.
“My personal preference is for the Biden-Lugar resolution,” he said, “which limits the authority to enforcing the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and requires the administration to work internationally, but allowing us to take action when there is great risk to our country.” But alternative measures “just aren’t going to happen in this climate,” Cardin said.
Like many other Jewish lawmakers, Cardin said that public opinion in his district does not favor the president.
“My district is not much different from most other districts,” he said. “There are many who are saying we have to exercise caution. The feeling runs from caution to opposition; there aren’t many who are supporting it.”
Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, said the Iraq debate is full of political risks for lawmakers.
Many Democrats — Jewish and non-Jewish — are wary of outright opposition because “we may go into Iraq, defeat them and discover that they were, in fact, up to no good,” Ginsberg said. “So anybody opposed to the war could end up with egg, if not anthrax, on their faces.”
At the same time, many Democrats are not convinced that the administration has an Iraq strategy that will work.
The result, Ginsberg said, is a scramble for safe middle-ground positions. Ginsberg said that Sen. Lieberman’s strong support for the administration has helped distance him from Al Gore, his partner in his 2000 vice-presidential bid and likely rival for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
“But if bad things happen [in the war], a lot of people who went out on a limb for the president could find themselves in trouble,” he said.
The jockeying in Congress came as Jewish organizations were still struggling to develop positions on the question of war with Iraq. This week Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was trying to convene several Jewish groups to publicly back the administration’s call for broad war-making authority, but at press time only a handful seemed ready to jump into the fray.
The American Jewish Congress, which endorsed the war powers resolution several weeks ago, this week lashed out at the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee for failing to do the same.
“Public support from Jewish groups is too important right now,” said the group’s president, Jack Rosen. “To be viewed as dragging their feet, or wavering, can carry serious repercussions. The ADL and the AJC must come out publicly, and must do it now, while the goals are still hot.”
But in an interview Rosen said that once the resolution is passed “most Jewish organizations will back the president.”
Last week the board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs voted overwhelmingly to table a resolution calling for support of the president’s war powers request.
This week the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was polling members on a draft resolution reiterating its “support of President Bush and the government of the United States in the war against global terrorism,” but stopping short of endorsing any legislation.
The leader of a major Jewish group said that “American Jews, in their gut, despise Saddam Hussein and are deeply worried about the threat he poses to Israel. With all that, they are reluctant about going to war.”
If U.S. forces do attack, this source added, “most American Jews will be supportive of the president. But the debate in my own leadership reflected the concerns and reservations many Jews have. Has the president really made his case? Do we know what’s going to happen the day after the war? Is this well-enough thought out?”