ANNAPOLIS – With the threat of an attack on Iraq looming, several members of the Maryland congressional delegation remain unsold on President Clinton’s plan.
More to the point, many complain that they don’t know what the plan is.
“I find out more from Time magazine than I do when I go to Washington,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville. “(President Clinton) needs to tell us what the targets are and what happens after the bombing stops.”
Gilchrest, a Vietnam veteran, said Congress was too quick to give President Johnson authority to expand that war when it approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He said Congress voted then without all the facts it needed for a good decision — something he vows not to do this time.
“If President Clinton wants a unified Congress then he needs to inform us better,” he said.
Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Lutherville, agreed.
He said the president has made a compelling argument that Iraq’s manufacture of chemical weapons could jeopardize U.S. interests, but he does not believe Clinton has explained what a military strike would achieve.
“If it’s to destroy the future manufacture of weapons, say it. If it’s to eliminate the Republican Guard, say it. If it’s to kill Saddam, say it,” Ehrlich said.
Reps. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, and Elijah Cummings, D- Baltimore, also felt the administration has failed to adequately explain its plan.
“I am very skeptical of going in there with an air strike and being myopic about thinking it’s going to succeed,” Morella said.
Gilchrest said the lack of dialogue with Congress is uncharacteristic. He said the Clinton administration was much more forthcoming before its 1994 military action in Haiti. The current dialogue pales in comparison to the Bush administration’s contact with Congress in the months leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, Gilchrest said.
But better communication won’t win over Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, who said he opposes military action, regardless of the plan.
“The answer is constraint,” said Bartlett. “(Saddam) needs to be told what the consequences would be if he uses these weapons, and that the consequences would be so devastating that he won’t use them.”
Clinton’s argument that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed to keep him from “visiting them on his neighbors” does not sway Bartlett.
“Clinton says he wants to protect (Iraq’s) neighboring states, but all of his neighbors except little Kuwait said `Don’t do this!'” Bartlett said.
He fears that bombing Iraq would “galvanize the Arab world against the United States” and jeopardize the flow of oil to the United States.
Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mitchellville, and Albert Wynn, D- Largo, expressed the strongest support in the delegation for the president.
“Only after we have exhausted all diplomatic means should we use the military,” Wynn said. “But if we do that, we should go in with the idea to severely cripple Saddam Hussein.”
Hoyer endorses tactical strikes against Iraq to enforce United Nations resolutions, a spokesman said.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes is withholding judgement pending the outcome of this weekend’s diplomatic mission by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a spokesman said. Sen. Barbara Mikulski issued no statement on the issue.
The delegation is divided on whether Clinton needs approval — either from Congress or the United Nations — to attack.
Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, would only endorse the use of force if the United Nations supported it, said a spokeswoman. Susan Sullam said Cardin believes the United States should not act unilaterally.
A resolution would require the unanimous approval of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, three of whom — China, France and Russia — reportedly oppose a military strike.
Bartlett noted that the current crisis arose out of Iraq’s violation of the U.N. resolution that ended the 1991 Gulf War, and he agrees that the United Nations would need to approve a new military initiative.
But Bartlett said Congress would also need to approve.
“(Clinton) clearly needs to come to the Congress,” Bartlett said. “This is the equivalent of a declaration of war.”
Wynn disagreed. He said it would be helpful if Clinton won congressional approval, but not necessary. He held out little hope of U.N. approval.
“I don’t think we could get it, and I don’t think we need it,” he said, adding that the United States’ superpower status sometimes requires it to act on its own.
The administration has twice asked Congress in recent weeks for approval to attack Iraq, said Gilchrest, but the leadership refused to bring it to a vote out of fear that it would be defeated — creating an impression that the country was divided.
As for a date for a possible military strike, Gilchrest said, “We are told `more than days and less than months.'”
Morella suggested that protests during a televised town meeting in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this week could have pushed back the time table.
“This may be on the fast track,” she said. “But I think what happened in Ohio may have slowed it down.”