Let voters have a say on the war


WASHINGTON -- What's the rush? Why is this country plunging pell-mell toward a war against Iraq at such haste that a full-blown public debate on the merits or folly of the exercise must be sacrificed?

Both President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders are insisting that Congress vote on a war resolution before the November congressional elections to keep the issue "out of politics." What kind of nonsense, or even insanity, is this?

The president insists that Congress act before the matter of U.N. support is decided as a goad to the world body to march in step with him. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt say a resolution should be approved to "get it off the table" so voters will concentrate on Mr. Bush's domestic vulnerabilities in a time of national economic distress.

What about a full airing of why war against Iraq is imperative and why now, with the United States going it alone -- as Mr. Bush has threatened -- if the United Nations balks? What better opportunity to inform the public about the pros and cons than during a campaign?

Rather than trying to clear the decks for a "normal" debate over tax cuts, drug benefits, Social Security and the rest, what is more necessary than hearing from the voters about whether they want to go to war against Saddam Hussein, and now?

,The time between now and Election Day on Nov. 5, the intensifying campaign for control of the House and Senate, should be an opportunity, not a hindrance. It should be converted into a referendum on what should be done, with a decision made only after the voters have spoken. Isn't that the way we're supposed to do things in a country of, by and for the people?

The president is already well into using the off-year campaign to peddle his open-ended war resolution before Congress, to the point of casting Capitol Hill Democrats as unconcerned about the security of the country -- a charge that so outraged Mr. Daschle that Mr. Bush finally backed off.

Most of these Democrats, however, have been racing to accede to Mr. Bush's pressures because of fear of bucking a popular president and the hope of changing the subject to domestic issues more favorable to them. Only Mr. Bush's imprudent attacks on them have lately begun to stir resentment and mild resistance.

Among the likely 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls, only Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts had been taking on Mr. Bush's war. That is, until former Vice President Al Gore last week unleashed a blistering attack on it and on the president's new doctrine of pre-emption. The doctrine would turn U.S. foreign policy on its head and make Mr. Bush the sole determinant in deciding when and where to go to war.

Is it too late to have a full-blown debate before Nov. 5, with the Democrats and the few Republicans skeptical about the wisdom of Mr. Bush's war coming out of hiding and forcefully arguing against it?

As early as the spring, a few outspoken souls such as Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, both Democrats, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican maverick, were raising pertinent questions. Now others, including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, both of California, and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, have joined in.

Instead of rushing to get the war issue out of the way to focus voter attention on perceived Republican weaknesses, Mr. Daschle and Mr. Gephardt should be obliging Mr. Bush to present more convincing evidence on why the United States should be planning a pre-emptive attack on another country -- no matter how despised its leader -- and why now.

There can be no greater contempt for the American voter, either by Mr. Bush or the Democratic congressional leaders, than to press ahead with plans to put young Americans in harm's way without fully airing the matter in the election campaign. In the five weeks left, there should be no greater urgency than such a public airing. After that, there will still be plenty of time to act, with the election results as a guide.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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