The United States' next steps in rebuilding Iraq and combating global terrorism have sparked another disagreement among the Democrats running for president and produced a hawkish warning to Syria from one of the candidates who opposed President Bush's decision to go to war.
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who voted against the congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war, said Syria's support of terrorism long has represented a far greater threat to the security of the United States than did Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. If diplomatic pressure on Syria fails, he said, the United States should be prepared to take effective military action to wipe out terrorist training camps operating inside that country.
Graham said in a telephone interview yesterday that he hopes the administration will pursue the diplomatic route to force changes in Syria's behavior, rather than immediately threatening military action. But he said if military action is necessary, something more than symbolic or token gestures -- he mentioned the cruise missile attack launched by President Bill Clinton into Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan as an example of what doesn't work -- will be needed.
"We need to be more effective," said Graham, a former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. Noting that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, might have been prevented if the United States had moved earlier and more aggressively against bin Laden, he said, "We don't want to repeat in the first decade of the 21st century the mistakes we made in the last decade of the 20th century."
Graham's statement sets him apart from the other candidates, who have emphasized diplomatic pressure or have been silent in response to the administration's sudden escalation in rhetoric toward Syria. The Democratic candidates prefer to shift their focus from Iraq to the U.S. economy and domestic problems. With a few exceptions, they have had little to say about the future of Iraq and the role the United States should play until an Iraqi government takes over. What they have had to say about Syria has come in response to questions on the campaign trail.
Two Democratic supporters of the war in Iraq who joined Bush in the Rose Garden last fall to promote the congressional resolution -- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) -- said the administration is right to use its newly strengthened influence in the Middle East to lean on Syria.
Gephardt, in a statement, said that while rebuilding Iraq should be the administration's top priority, "the Syrian government must refrain from harboring Iraqi fugitives, hiding any of Saddam Hussein's weapons or engaging in any terrorist activities." He called for economic and financial sanctions if the Syrians do not respond.
Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera said the Connecticut senator believes that the outcome of the war in Iraq "has given us leverage in the world to urge countries such as Syria that have harbored terrorism to stop and for us to talk to them aggressively."
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), another supporter of the war in Iraq, endorsed the administration's pressure on Syria, but spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said any talk of military action is premature.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who supported the Iraq resolution but sharply criticized Bush for his handling of the pre-war diplomacy, said he is withholding comment about the administration's challenge to the Syrians because he has not been briefed about Syria in several weeks, according to advisers. "I'd have to have further briefing before I make any judgment about what is directly linked to this initiative versus what is part of the ongoing problem with Syria," he said in a statement. "I think there is a distinction between the two."
Graham said he opposed the war in Iraq because he believed it would detract from the war on terrorism, and he criticized the administration for ignoring Syria's role in sponsoring terrorism. In recent months, he said, Bush officials were "passive" about Syria's role in harboring terrorists because "we were trying to play nice with them so they would vote for our second resolution" at the United Nations. "The time for that kid gloves treatment is over," he added.
The Democratic candidates also have divergent opinions about the role of the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq.
Lieberman offered his postwar prescription even before the fighting began and in that speech took issue with the administration's decision to put an American, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, in charge of overseeing Iraq's initial rebuilding. Lieberman said U.S. credibility would be strengthened in the Arab world if a non-American, preferably an Arab statesman, took on that role.
Lieberman has been closer to the administration's view on whether the United Nations or the United States and Britain should take the lead in the next phase of Iraq's future, believing that while a broad, international coalition is vital, the United States has no obligation to turn over the major responsibility for postwar Iraq to the United Nations. "He thinks the United States led the way on the war in Iraq and as a result has a responsibility to rebuild Iraq," Cabrera said.
Edwards and former Vermont governor Howard Dean outlined their views on postwar Iraq in speeches last week. Edwards, speaking on the Senate floor, said the United Nations must play a "central role" in Iraq "not just through passive endorsement but through active engagement in reconstruction, humanitarian relief and civil administration."
Dean, in statements he issued as Baghdad was falling, said the administration's plan "for the Pentagon to administer Iraq is a disaster. Whatever else he may be, [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld is no Douglas MacArthur." Dean proposed shifting civilian authority to an "international body approved by the U.N. Security Council."
Kerry called for giving the United Nations and NATO roles in postwar Iraq, saying, "The full participation of our international partners will dispel fears in the Arab world of the United States as an occupying force and will assist in building strong and lasting democratic institutions in Iraq."
Ivo Daalder, a Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution, warned Democrats not to fall into a trap of getting into a debate with the administration over the role of the United Nations. Instead, he urged Democrats to argue for an internationally run operation in Iraq rather than an American-run operation. "You want to tap international expertise that's out there," he said. "Whether it's U.N. or not is secondary."
Democrats have not yet talked about what kind of financial commitment they are prepared to support to underwrite the cost of Iraq's reconstruction, an issue likely to force them to choose between domestic needs and international obligations. Many of the candidates agree with Graham, who said, "As an American, I'd like to have some other countries putting their checkbooks on the table."