In one of the most important votes of their congressional careers, did Democratic Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Hollywood and Anthony C. Beilenson and Julian C. Dixon of Los Angeles come down on the wrong side of history?
In retrospect, Waxman seems to acknowledge, the answer is yes; Beilenson and Dixon say no. When Congress voted Jan. 12 to authorize President Bush to use force to expel Iraq from Kuwait, the three Westside congressmen were among 179 House Democrats who opposed the measure, calling instead for the continuation of economic sanctions. The pro-war measure passed--the House approving 250 to 183 and the Senate 52 to 47--with the backing of almost all Republicans, who now hope that the quick victory will lead voters to punish anti-war Democrats.
Beilenson took his dovish stance another step after the United States and its allies had intensively bombed Iraqi forces and military installations for several weeks. As the prospect of a ground war loomed, he became one of 45 lawmakers who signed a letter to Bush urging the President not to “significantly increase the level of combat operations at this time.”
The other two Democratic congressmen representing portions of the Westside--Howard L. Berman of Panorama City and Mel Levine of Santa Monica--broke ranks with the Democratic leadership to vote for the use of force.
While many Democrats remain defensive about their votes to deny the President authority to wage war in January, Waxman acknowledges having second thoughts.
“In retrospect,” he said in a recent interview, “I think war was inevitable given (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein’s faulty judgment, irrational behavior and despotic objectives. A man who let his country go to war against such odds, who refused to back down even after the air campaign to avoid a ground campaign, makes you wonder whether he ever would have backed down.”
Beilenson, in contrast, said he is pleased that the United States achieved its war aims but has no regrets about his vote.
“I continue to believe that sanctions were working, they were taking a very great toll and eventually they would have brought about the results that we wanted,” Beilenson said.
“You only fight wars as a last resort when your own vital interests are at stake and when you have no viable alternatives left. And that certainly wasn’t the case in January.”
Dixon has no regrets. “I don’t think anybody should feel uncomfortable about their vote,” he said. “Everybody made their best judgment at the time.”
He said his vote in favor of sanctions and against using force was based on mail and phone calls from constituents who were heavily against going to war. Dixon said he was also concerned about the potential danger to American troops as well as the Iraqi people.
Dixon conceded that in hindsight, President Bush’s intelligence about the military situation in Iraq and Kuwait proved to be “much better than (that of) members of Congress who voted no.”
Following the U.S.-led rout of Iraq with remarkably few American casualties, controversy has raged in the nation’s capital over whether the war vote is fair game as a 1992 election issue. Most anti-war Democrats have continued to defend their vote--at the same time noting their support for the troops once the conflict began Jan. 17. Republicans, meanwhile, have vowed to hammer Democrats who voted against force in next year’s elections.
Indeed, Jim Salomon of Beverly Hills, Beilenson’s Republican opponent in 1988 and 1990--who says he plans to run again in 1992--is already criticizing the veteran lawmaker for opposing Bush on this issue.
“If their polls show it works, they will use it,” California Democratic Party Chairman Phil Angelides said of the Republicans. “They will jam it to us. It’s Willie Horton of ’92"--referring to the furloughed murderer whom Bush transformed into a major campaign weapon against Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.
Angelides predicted that domestic issues--particularly the economy, education and the environment--would take precedence over the Mideast war by Election Day. At the same time, however, a nationwide poll by Times Mirror Co. earlier this month found that after the conflict Americans identified themselves as Republicans rather than Democrats on a scale not seen in 60 years, and that the GOP holds a 50%-40% lead in votes people say they would cast in a congressional election.
In Dixon’s, Waxman’s and Beilenson’s cases, the war’s political impact will be determined by the issue’s prominence 20 months from now, the nature of their new districts following reapportionment next year, and whether they face well-financed opponents who can communicate effectively with voters, political consultants say.
“If a Democrat is in a truly competitive district and it’s the type of campaign that could be a close election, being on the unpopular side of the Gulf War issue will make a difference,” predicted Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant.
Such a scenario appears an unlikely prospect for Waxman or Dixon, GOP strategists say. Waxman’s Hollywood-based 24th District is surrounded by heavily Democratic communities--making the chances of a hostile reapportionment remote--and his prominence and fund-raising ability make it probable that he’ll continue to face the kind of token opposition he has drawn for years.
Dixon’s 28th District, which includes Westchester, Culver City, the Crenshaw area and portions of Inglewood, is also overwhelmingly Democratic in voter registration and likely to remain so, and Dixon therefore is not likely to face much difficulty because of his vote.
Beilenson’s situation may be somewhat less secure, although he has been reelected by secure margins. The former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee won 61.7% of the vote in 1990 despite being outspent by a considerable margin by Salomon and doing little campaigning in his 23rd District, which stretches from Malibu to West Hollywood and extends over the Santa Monica Mountains to the West San Fernando Valley.
It is possible, however, that reapportionment could push his district deeper into the more conservative Valley and away from his loyal Westside constituents, consultants say. Moreover, Salomon says he will use the vote to challenge Beilenson’s support for Israel--a key issue in a district where many campaign contributors and a significant percentage of those who vote are Jewish.
“You cannot legitimately be pro-Israel and have voted against using force against Saddam Hussein because the bulk of public opinion in Israel, in the government and in the public, was that Saddam Hussein was a mortal threat to the state of Israel,” Salomon said.
As a candidate last September, Salomon advocated force if necessary to oust Hussein from Kuwait and disagreed with widespread forecasts that many American lives would have to be sacrificed in the process.
Beilenson, who is regarded by most major Jewish organizations as a reliable friend of Israel, had a tart reply to Salomon: “If he thinks that a decision on so momentous a question should be decided purely in terms of the results for Israel, then perhaps two years from now he should go run as a member of the Knesset,” the Israeli Parliament.
In addition, Beilenson said that when he led a congressional group to Saudi Arabia and Israel last December, some of his Israeli friends told him that a Mideast war was not in the Jewish state’s interest. And he noted that a majority of Jewish members of Congress had joined him in opposing the war resolution.
“It won’t really hurt,” Beilenson said of his vote on the war resolution and its effect on his 1992 reelection prospects. “It will cost a few votes.”
Berman, meanwhile, emerged from the Gulf crisis with enhanced credibility. Not only was he one of 86 Democrats to vote for authorization of force, he had voiced concern about Hussein’s militarism as early as 1984 and had sponsored a measure to impose economic sanctions against Iraq months before the Aug. 2 invasion. The Bush Administration continued to oppose Berman’s bill as late as the day it passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee--only hours before Iraqi forces crossed the Kuwaiti border.
Berman said it remains to be seen whether the United States makes the most of new opportunities to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and resolve the Palestinian issue. And he expressed particular disappointment about new Mideast arms sales proposals by the Bush Administration. But he said several important goals were achieved by the Gulf war.
“Saddam had to be stopped; he was stopped,” Berman said. “He at least no longer poses a threat to his neighbors. He no longer controls oil supplies. His ability to wage aggression was wiped out. And we succeeded in doing something we would have had to do at some point in the future with a much greater loss of life and much more damage. And we do have opportunities that did not exist before the conflict.”
As for those colleagues who continue to defend their opposition to the war, Berman said: “Democrats continuing to make a case now that sanctions might have achieved this result” are grasping for “more of an after-the-fact justification than a reasonable argument.”
In retrospect, Dixon agrees. It was “wrong to think (that sanctions) would ever work” against Hussein, he now says. But the congressman said he still believes that it is important to “explore every peaceful alternative to using force.”
Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this story.