Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Loving & Hating the U.S. Senate

Equivocation must be one of the defining qualifications for a career in politics. Learning how to take a stand while not offending those who disagree is often a hallmark of any successful politician, but with few exceptions Senators have elevated this skill to an artform.

As we approach the four year anniversary of the disastrous decision to invade another country with insufficient provocation or planning, I've been thinking of the Senate's role in that disaster, and searching for documentation about just what they were up to in the weeks before the invasion.

In October of 2002, by a 77-23 vote, the United States Senate authorized the President to use the U.S. Armed Forces against Iraq. So 23 Senators shared my distrust of this President to prudently make such a decision. That said, I can understand the concerns around reports of Saddam's weapons program and a complete lack of trust in his government which could lead some Senators plenty wary of war to legitimately feel it was in the interest of national security to give our President latitude to make that decision without the ordinary Congressional restraint. I disagreed then, and I think history has already proved me and the 23 right, but there is a difference between the authorization (an act of trust) and the decision to invade (an abuse of that trust).

My own Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell, who voted for the authorization very capably equivocated in her press release at that time, declaring among other things:
If, for some reason, the U.N. Security Council does not act, I will expect the President to make a major and aggressive diplomatic effort to enlist other partners around the globe in doing the right thing to stop the Hussein threat. ... Mr. President, my vote for this resolution does not mean that I am convinced of the Administration has answered all the questions. I believe the following issues must be addressed before the U.N. or the U.S. move forward with military action.

First: Continued Multilateral Approach. [followed by details...]
Second: Successful Military Strategy. [followed by details...]
Third: A Postwar Commitment Strategy. [followed by details...]
Fourth: Fighting the Broader War on Terrorism. [followed by details...]
Fifth: Maintaining Middle East Stability. [followed by details...]
Sixth: Protecting Iraqi Civilians. [followed by details...]

Mr. President, I hope our vote tonight and the President's multilateral efforts lead to a successful result where we would not need to use them. But if we do, these men and women will meet the task with professionalism, conviction and resolve.

Mr. President, I do not now, nor have I ever believed that military action is a preferred method to address international conflict. But sometimes it is necessary.
Cantwell covered her tracks, and could rightly claim that the President's actions in taking us into war in March of 2003 did not meet the test she found implicit in the resolution. In my view more of those constraints needed to be explicit within any such resolution at the least. Sadly though, in the final days leading up to the invasion when it became increasingly clear that the administration would not wait for the UN Inspectors who had not yet finished their job, there was far too little outcry from Senators (e.g. exhibit Cantwell's lack of outcry here or here) objecting to the administration's abuse of their authorization. I'm not impressed by the claim that they were rolled by Powell's act at the U.N., or Bush's lies at the State of the Union address. In spite of sharing the general sense that Colin Powell was honorable and upright, the whole business smelled fishy enough to me that February of 2003 saw me thus:

There were Senators on both sides of that vote who should have been crying foul, but as has too often been the case, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin gave us the lonely voice of reason,
I believe that the administration has not made clear to the American people, however, the magnitude of the task the country is setting for itself – not only with regard to the military engagement, but with regard to occupation and reconstruction.
His resolution called on the President to further report to congress before sending troops to war, explicitly calling out many of the same requirements Cantwell found implicit in the resolution. Feingold's resolution was read twice then referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Most of our Senators are extremely bright. I believe most of them really do care about serving the interests of our nation. But this invasion didn't pass the smell test for me or millions of people around the world, and yet this body was strangely mute.

Many in the anti-war crowd have damned them for the October resolution, but I damn them even more for their February-March 2003 silence. How could it be so blazingly obvious to this citizen and millions of others around the world, and yet draw scarcely a peep out of the senior legislative body of the republic leading the charge to war?

We can speculate that those who voted for the resolution felt obliged to accept the Administration reports, and that they and others who voted against it chafed against the possible repercussions of appearing less than fully supportive of the troops whose lives would be on the line. Fear that the campaign might be fully successful and draw to a nice conclusion no doubt muted some who figured their political careers would come to an abrupt end if they questioned Bush and ended up on the wrong side of what might become a wildly popular war.

Oh, the timidity! Have they learned nothing? They can't even adopt a resolution against a "surge" in 2007 that clearly does NOT have popular or congressional support.

Feingold remains the shining star

You may surmise that I dislike every other Senator, but it's not true. Many garner my admiration for one reason or another. But when it comes to speaking one's truth without equivocation, Russell Feingold stands alone.

The PATRIOT Act: 96-Russ

It's pretty sad that only one Senator could bring himself to vote against a massive bill being rushed through the chamber before anyone had time to read it. Feingold hadn't had time either, but he read enough to find Constitutionally questionable provisions that many now agree should never have become law.

I'm not the only person out here who finds strength of character appealing. Feingold should be the standard. And look - he doesn't even come from one of the solidly blue states. Wisconsin has elected and re-elected this darling of progressives across the country, not because he is liberal, but because he is genuine.

Senators, your job is not to worry about the political calculus of every move you make and every word you say or write. Your job is to take care of our nation and represent your values honestly to your constituents. Show your character and your voters just might surprise you.