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Levine’s Backing of Gulf Action Marks Turning Point in Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Mel Levine’s vote to authorize use of American military force against Iraq has shattered a longstanding alliance with local peace activists and has sparked howls of protest from hundreds of his Westside constituents.

Nearly two dozen anti-war protesters, led by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic and Venice activist Jerry Rubin, occupied Levine’s Century Boulevard office Friday to try to change the congressman’s mind. They failed.

And the Santa Monica Democrat said his district and Capitol offices have been flooded with calls “very significantly” opposed to his decision to grant President Bush the power to wage war in the Persian Gulf.

Levine said the vote triggered “a very strong reaction” from callers in Santa Monica, Venice and West Los Angeles, traditionally his strongest base of political support.

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For a liberal lawmaker whose political career had its roots in opposition to the Vietnam War, the decision to back use of force marked a major turning point.

Levine said it was impossible to determine the political consequences of his action. Although he has clearly angered peace activists on the home front, Levine apparently does not intend to seek reelection in his coastal district.

Although he has not yet announced his plans, the five-term congressman is regarded in political circles as all but certain to seek one of the two U.S. Senate seats that will be contested in 1992 in California. He has built a massive $1.7-million campaign war chest in anticipation of such a statewide campaign.

But with attention riveted on the Persian Gulf, Levine flatly refused to discuss his future political plans. “I just don’t feel comfortable getting into a discussion of politics,” he said in a telephone interview this week.

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Instead, he continued to defend the vote on military force that put him and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) at odds with their long-time Democratic political allies, Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Anthony C. Beilenson of Los Angeles.

Levine said his decision was particularly difficult when “so many of my friends both in Congress and my district are on a different side of the issue. It just made it harder.”

An outspoken defender of Israel throughout his political career, the Jewish lawmaker said he has been concerned for years about the threat that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed to vital U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Intellectually, Levine said, he did not believe that Congress had any choice but to support Bush in confronting the Iraqi leader. “The only thing that Saddam Hussein understands is strength and a willingness to stand up and draw a line and enforce it with force.”

But emotionally, it was a “very, very wrenching decision. I’ve never voted on an issue with such moment,” Levine said. “Casting a vote that can lead to armed conflict is a very, very tough personal matter.”

Levine cautioned against the United States getting dragged into a land war in Kuwait. But he advocated the use of concentrated air power to destroy Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capacity. Levine said such an air attack could “could cripple that capacity” with minimal casualties to U.S. forces.

The use of military force was opposed by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a Levine ally whose Assembly district overlaps extensively with Levine’s 27th Congressional District.

“My gut tells me that we’re sacrificing innocent blood for a not-so-innocent cause of access to petroleum,” Hayden said.

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Hayden said he discussed the Persian Gulf with Levine before last week’s vote. “He sincerely believes there is a better chance to get Hussein to cave in through military pressure,” the assemblyman said.

But Hayden, a leader of the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era, said the Bush administration has “failed to give us a compelling rationale for committing young men and women to risk their lives” in the Middle East.

“People say Saddam Hussein is a Hitler who has to be stopped,” Hayden said. “They don’t explain why we armed and supported him over the last decade or why he can’t be stopped by a very successful economic embargo.”

Hayden agreed that no one can calculate the political consequences of Levine’s decision other than the fact that “he’s on a different track than the peace groups.”


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