Although President Bush has acted with swift resolve since Iraq's dramatic invasion of Kuwait, America's message to Baghdad in the days and months preceding the attack was far more ambiguous. In fact, just six days before, Republicans and Democrats alike took the floor of Congress to oppose even the mildest sanctions against Iraq, which by that time had amassed 30,000 troops on its border with Kuwait.
Despite Hussein's outrages against human rights and his extraordinary military buildup, the United States has extended $500 million this year in credit guarantees for exports of agricultural commodities to Iraq. In 1989, the total was about $1 billion. Such taxpayer-subsidized loans are not even available to the Soviet Union, which has bought U.S. grain for years.
It is well known that U.S. farm subsidy programs--what Texas' Republican Rep. Dick Armey calls "OPEC for crops"--are among the most wasteful boondoggles that Congress has contrived.
When a farm-state Democrat, Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas, offered an amendment to this year's farm bill to take Iraq off the gravy train, the State Department opposed it; a subsidy cutoff, State said, "would not help us achieve U.S. goals with Iraq."
That the State Department and many in Congress were more interested in maintaining this most blatant of domestic political payoffs than in ending U.S. taxpayer support for Iraq was telling evidence of the level of American concern with events there. The implicit message was surely not lost on the Butcher of Baghdad as he weighed whether to grab Kuwait.
In all, 91 Democrats and 84 Republicans voted against ending export credit subsidies to Iraq. And while the Glickman amendment passed, 234-175, the kind of tough, even Pattonesque rhetoric that is everywhere evident in the halls of Congress today was strangely absent from the debate on July 27.
"Back before the Cuban Revolution," said Democrat Bill Alexander, "Arkansas was the single largest exporter of rice to Cuba. Over 30 years since the embargo was imposed by our country against selling rice to Cuba, it has cost my rice farmers $11.5 billion in uninflated dollars.
"The embargo on Cuba has been a classic case of shooting ourselves in the foot," he concluded. "To do so once was folly. To do so a second time, with respect to Iraq, is near insanity."
Insanity . . . Last week, the word was used to describe Saddam Hussein's state of mind. But the week before, it was to hell with human rights and national security--there's money to be made. Indeed, in the very same floor speech in which he acknowledged that the Iraqi government was "despicable," Alexander put it this bluntly: "Here's why we shouldn't restrict agricultural trade with Iraq: We need the trade."
Perhaps one might excuse a Bill Alexander for such crass opportunism, since he at least represents a farm district. But the farm lobby could not win 175 votes for subsidies to Iraq through its numbers alone. According to Bernal Green and Thomas Carlin, two economists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 46 of the 435 congressional districts in America are farm-oriented. Like the labor unions, farm groups have used political organizing skills to amplify their power far beyond their numbers.
That is why I found myself desperately lobbying representatives of large metropolitan areas during the floor vote on ending subsidies to Iraq.
Pressure from a rural constituency couldn't explain why Charles Rangel, the Democrat who represents Harlem, or Jim Bates, the Republican-turned-Democrat who represents San Diego's southside, voted to keep Hussein on the dole. A far better explanation is that most members of Congress, like the farm lobbyists themselves, are champion log-rollers.
David R. Nagel, a Democrat from Iowa who voted to continue Hussein's subsidies, recently took the House floor to explain in detail how farm-state legislators had cut a deal with the maritime lobby: In return for farm support of a "ship-American" rule, Nagel said, the maritime interests agreed to support the farm program.
And so it has gone, on and on, until now members of the House from every region of the country have become so caught up in voting for farm subsidies that even a madman like Saddam Hussein cannot break them of their habit.
Of course, once American public opinion was enlightened about Hussein, the very same members of Congress who had pontificated about the evils of "using food as a weapon" immediately voted to cut off not only subsidies, but all trade with Iraq.
None, however, was more unabashed in his instant reversal than Democrat Mervyn Dymally of Los Angeles. Taking the floor only five days after his vote to give subsidized loans to Hussein, Dymally "urgently requested" the President to "exert every effort, short of militaristic intervention," in Iraq.
It is a sad fact that the substantial support for taxpayer-guaranteed loans to Saddam Hussein--up to the very moment of his rape of Kuwait--speaks volumes about the dominance of domestic political expediency over national security interests in Congress. After all, it is hardly as if the bipartisan votes for continued agriculture subsidies to Hussein were cast in ignorance of the threat that he poses to Mideast peace.
Debate on the Glickman amendment only served to highlight that its opponents were well aware of Hussein's crimes. Missouri Republican Bill Emerson, who rose to oppose the subsidy cutoff, called Iraq "at this point in time the most abysmal government in the world." As if domestic murders and foreign aggression weren't enough, the debate even brought to light that Iraq has consistently cheated on the commodity loan program.
In a floor speech on the day of the Iraqi invasion, Edward F. Feighan, a Democrat who represents suburban Cleveland, Ohio, catalogued Hussein's atrocities to date and his potential for more. Feighan spoke with such ringing passion, one couldn't have guessed that he'd voted to stock Hussein's larders just days before.
So, through neglect and naive collaboration, America has found it now must pay a far higher price to stop Saddam Hussein than merely lost trade opportunities.
Edmund Burke, to whom is attributed the statement that "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," in fact said this: "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one--an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." Now Hussein and his 1 million bad men are combined against us. The failure of good Republicans and Democrats alike to stand together when there was an opportunity to thwart him has all but ensured American sacrifices in a contemptible struggle.