WASHINGTON -- After months of deferential support for President Bush’s foreign policy, some members of Congress are growing anxious about how the administration is handling crises with Iraq and North Korea.
Most of the concern is coming from Democrats -- including some who have supported Bush’s hard-line stance toward Iraq, but who now complain the administration has failed to provide Congress the information needed to assess the policy.
But even some Republicans are saying that the administration has not articulated a consistent policy against North Korea and has failed to make its case about why war may be justified on one front and not the other.
The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner (R-Va.), has been urging the Bush administration to do more to build and maintain congressional support for its policies. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has criticized the Bush administration’s policy toward North Korea as not tough enough. Other Republicans have complained that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been too dismissive of Congress’ role in foreign policy.
“Many of us believe we need more consultation, more briefings from the administration,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “Dealing with Congress is not Secretary Rumsfeld’s favorite part of the job.”
Moving to quell such grumbling, Rumsfeld traveled to the Capitol on Wednesday to brief members of the Senate Armed Services Committee about both international hotspots.
Asked after the meeting about complaints that he had not consulted with Congress enough, Rumsfeld said, “I have trouble understanding how one could make more appearances” than he has before Congress.
Bush still enjoys broad support for his foreign policy, and few members of Congress dare criticize him publicly.
“He still controls the cards on this stuff,” said a senior House Democratic leadership aide. “The public has a great degree of confidence in him.”
But the new year has brought signs of strain on Capitol Hill.
Warner and other senior Republicans confronted White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. with complaints about the administration’s lack of consultation with Congress on foreign policy, according to published reports of a closed-door meeting last week.
Warner declined to comment on the meeting, but said, “I think the consultation process between the president and his principal Cabinet officers and in others has to be stronger than it has ever been because of the complexity of this situation.”
The president’s efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear program have been questioned by some who say it has been inconsistent and poorly explained. Unlike his response to Iraq’s threat, Bush has not threatened military action against North Korea.
For months, the administration refused to offer incentives to the Pyongyang regime to abandon its nuclear program, saying that would amount to rewarding bad behavior. But Tuesday, in what many saw as an abrupt shift in policy, Bush said he might consider food and fuel aid to North Korea if it disarmed.
“This flip-flopping, and this change in position from one day to the next, sends a very conflicting and confusing message,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Some Republicans, meanwhile, say Bush’s policy is not tough enough.
“There’s growing nervousness among conservatives,” said a senior Senate Republican aide. “The administration seems to be trying to kick North Korea down the road because they only want to deal with Iraq.”
McCain, in an article in the Weekly Standard magazine this week, complained that the administration “appears to have embraced, and in some respects exceeded, the style and substance” of the Clinton administration’s policy toward North Korea. .
McCain said Bush’s approach, like Clinton’s, amounted to “wishful thinking and finger-crossing” about the behavior of the North Korean regime.
Even lawmakers who are sympathetic to Bush’s position say he has not done a good job of explaining the difference between his approach to North Korea’s nuclear threat and his bellicose posture toward Iraq.
“The administration has some work to do,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Van Nuys). “There are major differences between North Korea and Iraq, but I think lots of people are really confused. The administration has to do a better job of explaining those differences.”
Other Bush allies dispute that, saying they believe the policy distinction is crystal clear.
“The leader of North Korea is a tyrant and a blackmailer, but he’s not likely to start a war,” said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). “The leader of Iraq is a tyrant and crazy, and the way you deal with crazy people is different.”
Support for Bush’s Iraqi policy remains largely solid in Congress, but lawmakers are expressing frustration with the slow pace of the inspections that so far have produced no “smoking gun” about Iraq’s weapons capability. Many argue that Bush would have to produce more proof of Iraq’s threat before launching a military strike.
Some Democrats who supported last fall’s resolution authorizing force against Iraq are now worried that the Bush administration will not have the patience to let the inspections process run its course.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek) wrote to Bush on Wednesday saying the burden was on him to prove that diplomatic efforts had failed before launching a military strike.
“Given that diplomacy has not yet failed and because the new U.N. resolution has been successful in achieving worldwide consensus on disarming Saddam Hussein, I caution the U.S. not to rush to use force,” said Tauscher, one of 81 House Democrats who voted for the Iraq resolution.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said her confidence in Bush’s policy was shaken by the president’s statement Tuesday that he was “sick and tired” of Iraq’s failure to cooperate -- because it signaled an impatience to go to war, even though it seems few international allies would support an attack at this time.
“In the two weeks before we voted on the resolution, Bush said over and over again: We will lead a coalition if we take military action,” said Feinstein, one of 29 Senate Democrats to support the measure. “Now that support is weakening. We don’t have a coalition.”
Daschle lambasted the administration for failing to report to Congress on its diplomatic efforts and military preparations within 60 days, as he said was required by the measure.
“There is a growing frustration about the administration’s unwillingness to ... work with the Congress,” Daschle said.
Rumsfeld, responding to that complaint, said he did not believe that the resolution required a written report, and that his verbal briefings should suffice.
Warner pronounced the meeting with Rumsfeld “excellent,” but a senior Senate GOP aide said the briefing should be the beginning, and not the end, of a more vigorous administration effort.
“Their diplomacy cannot be deployed only 10,000 miles or half a world away,” the GOP aide said. “Their diplomacy also has to be deployed 16 blocks away.”