As U.S. warplanes flew to the Persian Gulf, Republican criticism of President Clinton’s Iraq policy tore away the appearance of national unity customarily adopted in periods of international tension.
Clinton, ignoring the GOP reproaches, saved his tough words Thursday for Iraq’s president.
“We cannot allow anybody anywhere to believe they are not bound by the rules of civilized behavior,” Clinton said in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where he was campaigning. “I don’t want to get in a word war with Saddam Hussein, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to keep him from threatening his neighbors, threatening our pilots.”
But James A. Baker III, secretary of state during the 1991 war against Iraq that left Saddam in power, bitterly attacked Clinton’s actions. Baker told a congressional committee the United States had allowed its anti-Iraq coalition to break up and should have hit Saddam harder.
In the House, Republican leaders, insisting the administration has left them uninformed, continued to block consideration of a Senate-passed resolution supporting U.S. troops in the gulf.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said the correct vote facing the House is not on the Senate resolution but on “whether we support this president on what he’s doing with our troops right now.”
The harsh words came as the Clinton administration girded for what appears to be harsh action against Iraq. Eight radar-evading F-117A Stealth fighter-bombers were being readied Thursday at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., for deployment to the Persian Gulf. Four B-52 bombers, most likely armed with cruise missiles, were headed to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a jumping-off point for a possible raid on Iraq.
Also, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was ordered from waters off Bosnia to join the carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf. The Army said it is sending two Patriot missile units and about 150 soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, to the Persian Gulf region, apparently to join Patriot batteries already in Saudi Arabia.
The United States will take all “necessary and appropriate actions” to defend its forces in the Middle East from any challenge posed by Saddam, Defense Secretary William Perry warned.
Queried about the GOP criticism, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon contended that last week’s move to increase the size of the “no-fly” zone in southern Iraq had bolstered America’s strategic position in the region. “We responded … in an effort to diminish Saddam Hussein’s military mobility and flexibility. I think we’ve succeeded in that,” Bacon said.
Not so, said Jack Kemp, the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate. In a statement released by the GOP campaign committee, Kemp outlined five ways in which he said Saddam has succeeded or is succeeding in strengthening his rule or weakening U.S. positions. “Saddam Hussein’s goals are clear,” Kemp said. “Bill Clinton must tell us what our goals are and how we can achieve them.”
On Capitol Hill, while attacking Clinton’s policy Republicans defended themselves against charges of disloyalty for criticizing the president during a foreign crisis.
“It used to be that foreign and security policy stopped at the water’s edge. Unfortunately that’s not the case,” Baker said, paraphrasing the famous dictum uttered in 1948 by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg that politics should stop at the water’s edge. “The idea that somehow Republicans should not feel free to speak their minds is a canard that just won’t wash.”
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Baker cited “a failure of leadership” as a reason behind Saddam’s apparent recovery of authority in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He praised last week’s missile attack but said it should have been more comprehensive.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited examples of Democratic criticism of President Bush’s foreign policy and said Republicans “have felt not only a right but an obligation to talk to the efficacy of this operation.”
“I don’t know how you can sit in the Oval Office and call the cruise missile strike a success when it clearly was not a success and not expect a response from this side of the aisle,” McCain said.
Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, said Republicans aren’t the only ones being political, that Clinton’s actions were being dictated by the presidential election campaign.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said it was unlikely the resolution supporting U.S. troops without mentioning their commander in chief would be brought up for a vote.
In California, where Clinton was campaigning, White House spokesman Mike McCurry denied that the president did too little last week in dispatching 44 cruise missiles against air-defense radar sites. “The president is confident that this is a prudent, measured course of action,” McCurry said.
Congressional Democrats sought to restrain their colleagues.
“The discussion here might lead Saddam Hussein to believe that he had succeeded in dividing the opposition,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
And Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, said administration actions in Iraq, far from constituting a failure of leadership, represent a continuation of the policy established under the Bush administration.
House leaders’ refusal to move on the resolution supporting the troops but not their commander in chief brought denunciations from Democrats.
“Republicans are playing politics and want to embarrass the president as much as possible,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.
And Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said, “I find it incredible that we might stall a resolution in support of our troops.”
Defense Secretary Perry found wry humor in the exchanges on Capitol Hill. Asked at a photo session about the sharp GOP words, Perry said: “That’s the biggest surprise of the month.”