Kosovo Whips Up Role Reversal on Hill
By Guy Gugliotta
A reporter asks Rep. Bonior if he thinks Rep. DeLay is "the Jane Fonda" of the Balkans war. "I don't want to characterize Mr. DeLay," Bonior replies. "Nor do I want to characterize Jane Fonda."
The war in Kosovo is standing congressional stereotypes on their head. GOP hawks such as DeLay (Tex.), who eight years ago stood foursquare behind President George Bush in the Persian Gulf War, have turned their backs on President Clinton and NATO's war in the Balkans.
And Democratic doves like Bonior (Mich.), who consistently opposed U.S. intervention in Central America in the 1980s and who voted against authorizing the use of force in the Persian Gulf, want to win the war in Yugoslavia, and are willing to use "whatever it takes," Bonior said, including ground troops "if necessary."
This about-face was readily visible this weekend, when Republican leaders hailed Jesse Jackson's successful efforts to secure the release in Serbia of three captured GIs, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) cribbed from the cliches of a bygone age to urge Clinton to "give peace a chance."
Many factors have contributed to the congressional role reversal, say the role players. Bush prepared better in the gulf, had a valid reason to fight and a plan to achieve his goals, DeLay said. Clinton has none of those things, he said.
Bonior thought Bush should have explored diplomatic solutions more deeply. He also opposed war for what he thought were mostly economic interests. By contrast, he said, Kosovo is about genocide.
Others, however, suggest there are simpler reasons. Bush was a Republican, and Congress was Democratic-controlled; Clinton is a Democrat and Congress is now Republican. "The Republicans have two choices today," said Robert Kagan, a State Department official in the Reagan administration. "They can say they are peaceniks and isolationists, or they can say they don't trust Clinton to conduct this war. I think hatred of Clinton is huge."
As for the Democrats, "it is probably true that certain liberals like Bonior can't imagine going to war for anything that might be construed as 'interests,' " added Kagan, now a senior foreign affairs associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've always been embarrassed by American power," but Kosovo can be defended as a "just war," he said.
Last week, in a series of votes demonstrating lawmakers' ambivalence about the Kosovo conflict, the House refused to fund a ground war unless Congress authorizes it, refused to invoke the War Powers Resolution either to declare war on Yugoslavia or to withdraw U.S. forces from the region, and refused to endorse the ongoing air war.
Throughout this episode DeLay and Bonior, the House majority and minority whips respectively, have played pivotal roles. DeLay made three speeches on the day of the votes, and Democrats blamed his fierce whipping for turning the air war endorsement into a loser.
It was Bonior who took DeLay to task for "cynicism" and inconsistency: "arm twisting" on the floor to gin up opposition to the air war only a day after he had brought lobbyists to his office to win support for the GOP's $12.9 billion emergency defense bill.
Indeed, since the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, probably no two House members better symbolize the House's bitter partisan enmity than DeLay, the neatly trimmed former exterminator from Houston, and Bonior, the bearded ex-seminarian from Detroit's blue-collar fringes.
DeLay has made no secret of his dislike of Clinton, whom he routinely and publicly denounces for "lying," while Bonior served as the lead attacker in the Democrats' systematic effort to tar then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as a dangerous extremist. "Hypocrisy" and "cynicism," like "lying," used to be taboo words in the House.
And in the role reversal over Kosovo, both men are articulate defenders of views that could not be more different, and which, in many ways, reflect conflicts that have endured for a generation.
DeLay, yesterday's hawk, is 52, received student draft deferments during the Vietnam era and avoided military service through the 1969 lottery. Bonior, 53, enlisted in the Air Force in 1968 and was discharged as a staff sergeant in 1972 after serving four years in the United States as an education counselor and a cook.
For DeLay, the distinction between the Persian Gulf and Kosovo could not be clearer. "I had the utmost confidence in President Bush," DeLay said in an interview. "He had laid the groundwork, and our national interest in the Middle East was clear. In the gulf we had a country that was invaded [Kuwait], and an oil interest to defend."
In the Balkans, he continued, "We have a president I don't trust, who has proven my reason for not trusting him: he had no plan. We have a civil war that was falsely described as a huge humanitarian problem, when in comparison to other places, it was nothing."
DeLay claimed that before the air war began, only an insignificant number of people had died in Kosovo's ethnic conflicts. "Clinton didn't even tell the truth about the situation on the ground," DeLay said.
Bonior's perspective is completely different. "In the gulf war, there was no conference to try to mediate the differences we had, and the goal in 1991 was sold to the American people based on the oil, the economic factor," Bonior said.
That wasn't good enough. But "this situation" in the Balkans "is genocide. We're dealing with the wholesale slaughter of people. This is much more just, and more strategically and diplomatically important" than the Persian Gulf.
"We said that we'd never let this happen again, and we cannot allow the 20th century to end the way it began," Bonior added. "The idea that we would do that is just repulsive to me."
Both men acknowledge inconsistencies in their positions. DeLay in 1991 said Bush must have the authority to fight the war without Congress interfering like "535 commanders in chief." Last week, he was one of 127 House Republicans to vote to invoke the War Powers Resolution to remove all U.S. forces from the Balkans within 30 days. That's a position, Carnegie's Kagan pointed out, that the GOP has adamantly opposed for 20 years as an unwarranted intrusion into presidential prerogatives.
But the Balkans is different from the gulf, DeLay explained on the floor, because Clinton has offered "no explanation defining what vital national interests are at stake." Instead, he continued, "many who argue we cannot pull out say we should stay to save face, if for no other reason. I would like to ask these people, was it worth it to stay in Vietnam just to save face?"
DeLay also criticized Clinton for letting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continue to defy the United States eight years after the end of the Persian Gulf War. Yes, he admitted, Clinton inherited a limited victory from Bush, and "I wish Bush would have gone on and finished it off."
But he didn't, so the United States should "continue to push him." And the "chicken hawks" don't understand this. "My daddy told me how to point a gun, and said, 'If you ever point it at someone, you better be ready to kill him.' "
The moral of the story in Iraq, DeLay said, is "if you're going to bomb, then bomb," which is precisely the attitude that Bonior has adopted on Kosovo. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "left us with no other choice except to stand back and do nothing," Bonior said. "That is impossible."
To Kagan, however, all of this has a familiar ring. "You stake out a certain position for a variety of reasons, whether it's hatred of Clinton or mistrust of motives, but you get into trouble when you have to defend it."
Democrats "talk about American leadership and American power, things they never cared a fig about in the past," Kagan said. Republicans, "who used to care about those things, grab for the peaceniks' arguments: 'It's a sovereign nation, doesn't Slobodan Milosevic have a right to govern his own country?' "
In Congress as in war itself, Kagan said: "Whatever there is, you reach for it."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company