Web exclusive 6/13/02
The loyal opposition
By Michael Barone
Amid all the news about the failings of the FBI and CIA and about President Bush's proposal for a Department of Homeland Security, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's June 4 speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center on foreign policy got less attention than it deserves. In clear and graceful prose, Gephardt set out an intellectually serious approach to foreign and military policy, similar in many though not all respects to that of the Bush administration. Gephardt does not speak for every Democrat, but as a potentially serious candidate for the presidency in 2004 and as a politician sensitive to the range of views in the House Democratic Caucus, he provides a good marker of where the Democratic party is on major issues.
There were at least four interesting points in Gephardt's speech. The first is what he said about Iraq. "The other regional [Middle East] challenge that requires American leadership is Iraq. Saddam Hussein survives by repressing his people and feeding on a cult of victimization. He is clearly not a victim, and I share President Bush's resolve to confront this menace head-on. We should use diplomatic tools where we can, but military means when we must, to eliminate the threat he poses to the region and our own security." Gephardt talked briefly of "new foreign policy initiatives" in the region, then said, "We should be prepared to remove the other leg with the use of force. I stand ready to work with this administration to build an effective policy to terminate the threat posed by this regime."
So Gephardt is prepared to vote for the use of military force against Iraq. To some this may seem a contrast with his opposition to the Gulf War resolution in January 1991. That's not quite right. Gephardt was not one of the many Democrats who viewed the Gulf War through the prism of Vietnam; his speeches in January 1991 were devoid of such comparisons and he did not predict, as some Democrats did, huge casualties or a quagmire-like involvement. His argument was that sanctions might well work and should be given time to do so. His June 4 speech does give him the option of taking a similar stand on a war-with-Iraq resolution this time; he could say that we haven't given diplomacy a chance to work, and should wait before taking military action. That sounds something like the position of Al Gore's longtime foreign policy adviser Leon Fuerth.
But taken in the context of the entire speech, Gephardt's words seem a clear signal of support for military action against Iraq. They stand in sharp contrast to the reaction of many American liberals and Europeans to George W. Bush's "axis of evil" statement in his January 29 State of the Union speechthat war with Iraq would be folly. They give reason to believe that an Iraq war resolution would have the support of most House Democrats as well as all or virtually all House Republicans,and that such a resolution would pass by an overwhelming margin.
The second interesting point in the speech is Gephardt's criticism of the Bush administration on homeland security. "Almost nine months after September 11, America has still not crafted a strategy to significantly strengthen our nation's security, despite a series of recent warnings from our government. We need to reorganize our homeland defense agencies in order to maximize the safety of all Americans. Not only does the Homeland Security Director need to be a cabinet officerhe needs budgetary authority. He needs operational authority. And he must provide a comprehensive plan to the Congress on our national strategy for homeland security." Unbeknownst to Gephardt, George W. Bush agreed. Gephardt spoke on June 4. Two days later, on June 6, Bush announced his plan for a Department of Homeland Security.
Gephardt has not previously taken much interest in technical military service. But, in the third interesting point in his speech, he endorsed military "transformation." He presented some interesting ideas: a multiservice war college and a plan to let volunteers serve 18 months on active duty and 18 months in the reserve for an $18,000 bonus. "One of the best things we can do," he said, "is transform our military by linking new technologies with existing ones," like the GPS guidance kits attached to dumb bombs and pilotless aircraft. Gephardt plans to work closely with fellow Missourian Ike Skelton, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; with their support Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems likely to encounter far less trouble in pushing for military transformation than he would if committee members protect vested constituencies and old-fashioned service interests.
Gephardt's speech was also speckled with criticism of the Bush administration. As he has before, he echoed East Coast elite and European complaints about Bush's "unilateralism" and said "America must lead" on Israeli-Palestinian issues, which sounds like a call for Clinton-style close involvement. He also called for interesting new initiativesmore Radio Free Europe-type broadcastingand supported the initiative of George McGovern and Bob Dole to provide school lunches around the world.
What is most striking about Gephardt's speech is not just how close his policies are to Bush's but also how similar his view of the world and Bush's are. For many years, especially in the 1970s and the 1980s, most Democrats' and most Republicans' views of the world were very different: Democrats saw a world in which United States forces and initiatives were a threat to human rights, while Republicans saw a world in which assertion of American power was needed to hold back forces of evil. Now they see the world in pretty much the same way: a world in which the United States is at war with evil terrorists and must win. They are singing off the same page, for the most part in harmony.
As House Democratic Leader, Gephardt serves what is arguably the most left-wing group of Democrats this side of the California state Senate. Yet for this relatively conservative speech he has received relatively little criticism from liberal Democrats in the press, and little dissent has been heard from the House Democratic Caucus. Politicians like to summon up memories of the great days of bipartisan foreign policy, an era that did not last as long as such rhetoric sometimes suggestsat most from the Truman doctrine of 1947 to the emergence of dissent over Vietnam around 1967. But to judge from Gephardt's speech, the days of bipartisan foreign policy may be back.