Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who spearheaded congressional efforts to impose economic sanctions against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein long before his army invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, says the current Middle East stalemate offers no easy outs.
Berman maintains that President Bush's avowed goal of protecting Saudi Arabia and forcing Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait doesn't go far enough. Berman's overriding concern is preventing Hussein from emerging from the crisis "with an undiminished military capability," including chemical and ballistic weapons, and the capacity to develop nuclear arms.
At the same time, Berman added, "I don't want to see Americans slaughtered in a costly ground battle there."
Berman, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a fellow member of the panel; and Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, each expressed overall support last week for the Bush Administration's handling of the showdown with Iraq.
But the three San Fernando Valley area lawmakers also voiced concerns about the cost of the U.S. troop deployment, the need for greater burden-sharing by allies and the long-term threat posed by Hussein, even if he blinks first in the current conflict. U.S. forces in the region now number about 100,000, with expenses climbing into billions of dollars.
Beilenson also criticized Bush for failing to capitalize on the situation to enact energy conservation measures aimed at reducing American dependence on Middle East oil, a trigger for military involvement in the region. The lawmaker is a longtime advocate of higher gas taxes to encourage conservation and raise revenues to cut the federal deficit.
"He's avoided that subject entirely even though everybody is aware this is causing a great part of the problem," Beilenson said of Bush. "At the very least, he should be speaking out strongly in favor of pending legislation requiring cars with higher energy efficiency."
In interviews conducted as members of Congress returned to Washington after their summer break, the trio differed markedly on the question of whether the United States should use covert tactics to encourage or precipitate Hussein's overthrow. The Washington Post has reported that Bush signed a confidential finding authorizing the CIA to engage in such activity.
"I personally feel that there is little role for the CIA to play," said Beilenson, who would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a finding. The President is required to inform the Select Committee on Intelligence about such a directive.
"It's a potentially dangerous kind of thing to get involved with. If it were ever exposed, it would detract from our involvement with others in the international community to ensure that the rule of law is complied with."
Berman, however, said: "I think there's a place for covert operations in this situation." Asked if that extends to ousting Hussein or destroying his chemical and missile bases, Berman said, "That does not bother me in the least."
Gallegly, who was among about 150 lawmakers briefed Aug. 28 about the Persian Gulf situation by Bush and his top aides, hedged when asked whether the United States should undertake covert efforts to oust Hussein. But he added, "Nobody is going to be disappointed if Hussein is no longer in power."
The lawmakers also differed on the prospect of the United States launching an attack against Hussein's strongholds, which would be contrary to Bush's stated intentions.
After giving the trade embargo and other economic sanctions more time, Berman said that he would not rule out undertaking "military methods which involve relatively little risk to American troops" in a bid to knock out Hussein's offensive firepower. Such a move assumes that Hussein would not agree to a negotiated settlement that includes the verifiable dismantling of his chemical and missile weapons--a prospect that Berman acknowledged was highly unlikely.
The alternative to throttling Hussein's offensive capability, Berman said, is eventually facing a more heavily fortified foe who will pose a direct threat not only to his Arab neighbors but also to Western access to affordable oil, and to Israel.
"I don't think that any reasonable person is for our attacking the Iraqis," he said. "You immediately lose the support of the worldwide community, you immediately antagonize the Arabs--you make it us against them--and you destroy the fabric of what the President has strived so hard to create."
Despite increasing sentiment among some of his 21st District constituents to "start pulling triggers," Gallegly said, "We have to be very careful."
All three representatives reported that calls, comments and letters from constituents are heavily supportive of Bush's actions. But Gallegly and Berman, who represents the 26th District, said they have heard concerns about the growing financial cost to the United States of the Mideast commitment.
"There is an overriding sentiment that some of the richest beneficiaries should pay their fair share of this whole operation," Berman said, alluding to Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia agreed to a multibillion-dollar assistance package last week. In addition, the exiled emir of Kuwait offered Friday to provide $5 billion this year to defray the military expenses and costs borne by neighboring nations as a result of the Iraqi invasion.
In his 23rd District, Beilenson said, "People were kind of supportive but they were worried and they weren't quite sure why we were doing it."
Berman tempered his praise for Bush's handling of the post-invasion crisis with harsh criticism for the President's overtures to Hussein prior to Aug. 2. The Administration had opposed Berman's sanctions bill--designed to prevent "dual use" items such as computers and aircraft parts from being sent to Iraq--right up until the day before Iraqi troops crossed the border.
Berman hopes that the current situation will provide a boost for another bill he has sponsored that is intended to prevent the spread of ballistic missiles. Under the measure, foreign companies that sell that technology to countries such as Libya or Iraq would face the prospect of being cut off from millions of dollars in U.S. defense contracts.
The initiative has been incorporated into the defense appropriations bill pending in the Senate.
"The thing that makes Saddam Hussein particularly dangerous is the result of Western and Soviet technologies that were allowed to get into his hands," Berman said. "There are other Saddam Husseins out there."