Democrats' divide on war starting to narrow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The most prominent 5-4 split in Washington continues to be the one on the Supreme Court that delivered the presidency to George W. Bush and has decided many other (though, recently, not all) major issues in favor of the conservative bloc on the court.

But another significant 5-4 split exists on the political scene. Five of the Democratic presidential candidates for 2004 - Florida Sen. Bob Graham (who voted against Mr. Bush's use-of-force resolution), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton - all opposed the invasion of Iraq. The other four - Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri - voted for the resolution.

Supporting the war was generally considered the politically astute position on the broad assumption that Iraq would be swiftly conquered and that any Democratic aspirant to the White House who had been against the war would see his public support crumble as soon as the dust cleared in Iraq.

Well, the dust has not cleared all that quickly, what with armed attacks by remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime producing almost daily American casualties and resistance to early efforts to create political stability and reconstruction. And as the situation on the ground looks more like an American occupation than liberation, the domestic political fallout may be giving new life to those presidential hopefuls who continue to criticize the war.

Support for Mr. Bush remains personally high, but doubts about the justification, wisdom and likely outcome of the Iraqi adventure are growing. Anti-war candidate Dean, in particular, has gained popular and financial strength with his incessant assault on the president on both the foreign policy and domestic economic fronts.

This phenomenon may not last as the Bush administration soldiers on with efforts to put down the pockets of resistance in Iraq and get on with its ambitious objective of bringing democracy to that country. But for now, it seems to be causing a modicum of nervousness among those Democrats most supportive of the Republican president on his war.

In one way or another, the pro-war candidates have been joining their anti-war colleagues on the campaign trail in the Democratic chorus of criticism on the handling of the evolving circumstances in Iraq. The latest is Mr. Lieberman, who in a newspaper op-ed piece circulated on the Internet has taken the administration to task for its "stubborn refusal to change course and build a safer postwar Iraq in partnership with the world."

Mr. Lieberman wrote: "Enough time has passed to conclude that what we are doing is not working." Failure to provide needed security and other services, to set up an Iraqi interim government and "to get key allies aboard," he went on, is "adding fuel to the fire of those who call this an occupation, not a liberation."

Mr. Lieberman particularly assailed Bush officials for insisting "we neither wanted nor needed any help from friends and allies" and charged they had not learned from the Afghanistan experience. He called for more U.S. troops and resources in Iraq, creating a NATO command there, stepping up plans for an Iraqi interim authority and making clear that "the critical decisions about Iraq's oil will be made by Iraqis."

Jano Cabrera, a Lieberman spokesman, points out that his boss, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in February, made many of the same points. What may be motivating Mr. Lieberman to reiterate them now is an awareness that many Democrats, in their strong and growing dislike of Mr. Bush, want a 2004 nominee willing to hammer at the president, not be a mere shadow of him because of his support of Mr. Bush's war.

Of the four Democratic candidates who voted for the war resolution, Mr. Kerry began expressing his reservations even before the shooting started. As a result, his position - which he described in a Georgetown University appearance as "yes, but" - left him open to allegations of indecision. Now he, too, is among the chorus of Bush critics on the president's handling of the invasion's aftermath.

As a result, that 5-4 presidential candidate split over the war may soon seem less distinct, especially if Mr. Bush's woes in Iraq continue and all nine Democratic hopefuls pile on.

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

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