An outraged Congress moved swiftly Thursday to support President Bush's economic sanctions against Iraq, as key lawmakers from both parties urged the White House to consider coordinating a possible allied military response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
A bill providing for broad sanctions against Iraq was rushed to the floor and passed by a unanimous 416-0 vote in the House. A similar resolution was being drafted in the Senate, which earlier in the day also moved quickly to extend Bush's authority to draw on the nation's strategic petroleum reserves in the event that the Iraqi invasion disrupts oil supplies.
Warning that the invasion directly threatened U.S. security interests in the Middle East, members of Congress praised Bush for his decision to freeze Iraqi assets in the United States and cut virtually all commerce with the Baghdad regime with the exception of humanitarian assistance. Recently, many lawmakers had been calling for the Administration to escalate its response from diplomatic pressure to economic sanctions.
"The Administration, finally, this morning, as a result of the invasion, has a good policy," said California Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), the sponsor of the Iraqi sanctions bill passed by the House. The legislation, which also withdraws $200 million in Export-Import Bank credits extended to Iraq, was drafted before the invasion and rushed to the floor after a hasty revision to incorporate the measures contained in Bush's executive order.
Berman and other lawmakers who have been pressing for sanctions against Iraq since it used poison gas against Kurdish separatists two years ago spiked their praise of Bush with criticism.
"I hate to say 'I told you so,' but for years the people in the State Department have been acting like wimps toward (Hussein). They have been appeasing him . . . and appeasement has only served to whet his appetite," said Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), one of the Senate's most vocal critics of the Administration's policy.
But other lawmakers, saying that this is not the time for recriminations, urged a bipartisan consensus in dealing with a crisis whose long-term implications may help to reshape not only the U.S. role in the Middle East but also the outcome of a host of domestic debates over such issues as defense spending, the budget, a national energy policy and offshore oil drilling.
Iraq's blitzkrieg on its tiny, oil-rich neighbor left more than 100,000 Iraqi troops within easy striking distance--less than 250 miles over flat desert terrain--of the Saudi oil fields that provide 15% of all the oil the United States imports, noted Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"We have to take this seriously. We have to understand that Saddam Hussein wants to be the leader of the Middle East, the person calling the shots," Boren said. "This is not just a short-term crisis. It's a long-term situation . . . and our national interests are very much at stake here."
Beyond these immediate security concerns, lawmakers said the longer-term effects of Iraq's attempt to dominate the gulf would be felt in renewed uncertainty over oil prices--a concern that could affect everything from the current federal budget negotiations to California's efforts to end offshore oil drilling along its coasts.
In one early sign of the ripple effect the crisis could have, the Senate--debating a $289-billion defense bill--defeated efforts to stop production of the B-2 bomber after proponents of the plane cited the invasion as a compelling reason for the need for a new strategic weapons system capable of projecting American power in conventional and nuclear conflicts.
Democrats and Republicans alike urged Bush to increase the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. The resolution expected to be passed by the Senate said that, if economic and diplomatic sanctions fail, then "multilateral actions . . . involving air, sea and land forces may be needed" to compel Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and "restore international peace and security to the region."
"Serious consideration should be given to the use of military force," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said. "You're talking about a guy who possesses a chemical weapons capability, maybe worse, whose goal is to dominate the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. It seems to me that we've got to deal with this fast, or it could get worse."
"Saddam Hussein is a cancer on the world body politic and we must excise that cancer now lest it engulf the Middle East," said Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But in calling for military intervention, Dodd, D'Amato and others favoring a military response cautioned that the United States should not intervene unilaterally, but only in the context of a unified allied response.
"It may be necessary for us, as we did in Korea, to come to the aid of the (gulf states) . . . . But we must be leaders in galvanizing the world community. If the responsibility falls on us alone, we cannot carry the day," D'Amato said.
After a day of highly emotional speeches about the need to deal forcefully with a tyrant who, in the eyes of Congress, has come to eclipse the mullahs of Iran as the region's worst villain, some lawmakers warned that even joint military intervention may not be feasible against a country as powerful as Iraq.
"Our military options are really very limited. Our ability to project heavy armaments into that situation is virtually non-existent," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said.
"You can send in a carrier task force like we did with Iran," one congressional foreign policy expert added. "But that's not going to change a situation where the invading country has more than 1 million men under arms and thousands of tanks."
Boren, who has had access to intelligence community briefings on the crisis, agreed.
"As far as Kuwait is concerned, it's over," he said. "The Iraqis are in control of all the government ministries, and the (Kuwaiti) leader has fled the country. There's not much that can be done to reverse the situation."