Although Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson opposed use of U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf, he is now urging that American troops be used to protect Kurdish refugees in dire straits in northern Iraq.
The outspoken West Los Angeles Democrat said the United States has a moral obligation to ease the plight of the Kurds, who have been fleeing en masse into the mountains near the border of Iraq and Turkey to escape forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In a discussion Monday with Westside reporters, Beilenson went so far as to suggest the assassination of the Iraqi leader. And he urged a complete embargo on arms sales to the Middle East, including Israel.
But he said his most pressing concern was aiding the Kurdish refugees.
"You've got a million and a half people up in the hills who are starving and hurting and dying," Beilenson said. "We're undertaking finally, seriously, getting the U.S. military involved in delivering humanitarian aid to them.
"There is no way many of them can survive far away from their home villages and cities. The only decent thing that can be done is to ensure their safe move back into their homeland, to their own cities and their own villages. . . . If that requires an escort of U.S. military forces, so be it."
Beilenson said he thought that could be accomplished with little risk to American forces. "The chances of fighting breaking out between Saddam Hussein's troops and our troops is virtually nil if we moved our people up there to protect the Kurds and get them back home."
The liberal Democrat praised President Bush for doing "exceptionally well militarily" in the war with Iraq, but he sharply criticized Bush for being "unconscionably slow" in responding to the after-effects of the conflict.
"It's been a total moral failure on our part," Beilenson said. "We're going to have ended up, perhaps, having hurt more people than we helped in this whole undertaking."
On Tuesday, Bush ordered U.S. troops to start constructing temporary camps in northern Iraq for Kurdish refugees and pledged that U.S., British and French forces would protect them.
Beilenson said one of the reasons he voted against use of force in January to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait was concern about the "unpredictable, unforeseen results" of military action. Instead, he favored continued economic sanctions against Iraq.
Beilenson told reporters he saw no conflict between his opposition to military intervention to free Kuwait and his support for using American troops to protect the Kurds as well as Shiite Moslems in southern Iraq.
"You can't make a mess and walk away responsibly," he argued. "We can't walk away and leave these people being shot or killed or pushed out of their homeland by their own government. It may or may not require leaving some U.S. troops for some period of time."
He suggested that U.S. forces, which are now in the process of withdrawing from southern Iraq, remain for another few months until a United Nations or Arab peacekeeping force is established.
"We've got to ensure as best we can, at least for a few months, that these people we leave behind are not slaughtered by their own government."
In response to a question, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee suggested that Hussein be assassinated. But the eight-term congressman said he was not sure the CIA should be involved.
"Saddam Hussein is now killing or trying to kill or evict 2.2 million of his own people. Obviously he could care less about them," Beilenson said. "If someone could have killed him ahead of time, it certainly would have been worth it. The same as if someone had killed Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or someone of that sort.
"I don't know how someone goes about it and, quite obviously, it is not the kind of thing you want to go around advocating. Who draws the line? Who has the right to make those choices?"
Beilenson said he "wouldn't mess with" Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi or former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega. "People like that are kind of small, lightweight monsters," he said. "There are lots of little monsters around the world . . . you can't go around killing them all."
In his trademark maverick fashion, Beilenson also called for an all-out embargo on arms sales to the Middle East, including Israel.
"For us to return to business as usual the moment the war is over--to start talking about shipping arms again to willing buyers in the Middle East--seems to me an abject moral failure," he said. "The last thing the Middle East needs is more weapons."
But his call for an embargo on arms sales to Israel could prove to be controversial with Jewish voters in the 23rd Congressional District, a traditionally Democratic stronghold that runs from Beverly Hills to Malibu and across the Santa Monica Mountains to parts of the west San Fernando Valley.
"The Israelis cannot afford a continued arms race in the Middle East, any more than anybody else can," he said. But if the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Kuwaitis and the Syrians buy more arms, Beilenson said the Israelis will obviously want to maintain a military edge.
On domestic issues, Beilenson renewed his call for higher taxes to combat the ballooning federal deficit, now expected to top $315 billion this year.
"This generation is refusing to pay for the goods and services and programs it demands from its government," he said. "We're paying for about 80% of our budget each year. The other 20% we are putting on the credit card and handing over to our kids."
As he has done before, Beilenson called for boosting the top income tax rate to 38% for those who earn more than $200,000 a year, imposing a tax on securities and financial transactions, and possibly instituting a limited value-added or national sales tax.
"We've got to raise taxes. There is no other way out. When you start looking at the choices and the programs to cut, there is not enough to cut, even if you cut a lot out of defense," he said. "If you are serious about bringing the deficit under control, you've got to raise taxes."
Once again, Beilenson said he would introduce legislation to raise the federal gas tax by 10 cents a gallon each year for the next five years. His goal is to discourage dependence on foreign oil, spark energy conservation, and raise money for mass transit, roads, and alternative energy sources.
"We're paying less than one-third to one-fourth of what every other driver in the industrial world pays (for gasoline)," Beilenson noted.
He conceded that calling for higher gas taxes in auto-addicted Los Angeles may cost him votes, but vowed to continue speaking out despite the potential political cost.
Although he dislikes off-year fund-raising, Beilenson said he may have to hold a campaign event later this year to build a campaign fund of at least $200,000 for the 1992 election.
Last year, Republican Jim Salomon raised and spent far more than Beilenson--one of the few cases in the nation where the incumbent was outspent.
Nevertheless, Beilenson was reelected with 61.7% of the vote. His political fortunes may depend on where his district lies after congressional boundaries are redrawn to reflect population changes.
Beilenson expressed the hope that his territory remain intact, but he would clearly love to expand his Westside base, instead of having his turf pushed farther out into the more conservative and Republican reaches of the Valley.
Asked about problems in the Los Angeles Police Department, Beilenson repeated his view that Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates should resign in the wake of the police beating of motorist Rodney G. King.
Beilenson said the videotaped incident of white officers attacking a black man reminded him of scenes from Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s. "If that is not enough to make you sick and enough to feel that some major changes need to be made (in the LAPD), I don't know what is," he said. "I just react viscerally to it. It wasn't just two or three men. It was more than that letting it happen."
If a different kind of person had been police chief for the past 13 years, Beilenson said "that kind of thing would not have happened, because every officer on the force would know . . . the chief wouldn't stand for it."