Daschle's Tardy Challenge

Even with U.S. planes and missiles over Baghdad and allied ground forces trying to stave off the destruction of Iraq's oil wells, the policies that led to war with Iraq and that will guide a postwar occupation remain fair game for debate. Even with U.S. military and civilian leaders making a coordinated effort to get Iraqi commanders not to fight, with ordinary people across the U.S. riveted to TV sets, heart in mouth, worrying about American troops -- even now, criticism of an administration is not betrayal. That's one bright line of difference between the United States and Iraq. But honestly, where was critic-come-lately Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) hiding for the last several months? Under a rock?

The Senate minority leader came out swinging Monday, declaring that President Bush had "failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to go to war." Instead of representing vital opposition, Daschle's remarks epitomize the failure of Democrats in Congress to robustly debate Bush's policy on Iraq when it could have affected events.

Daschle and other Democrats who voted for last October's sweeping resolution authorizing force against Iraq voiced doubts in recent months about White House Iraq policy, often with genuine personal distress. But few had the guts to call the war vote a mistake or express their change of mind vigorously and publicly; they kept silent on the timid grounds that opposition was politically hopeless. Unsurprisingly, on Thursday even vocal critics in Congress declared their support for the president, but dissent at any point does not make Daschle or any other congressional critic unpatriotic or a traitor.

Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers and the White House brushed close to that word, lambasting Daschle and stigmatizing dissent generally. GOP National Committee Chairman Mark Racicot said it was "shameful" of Daschle to "blame America first." Daschle's words, huffed House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), "may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close."

Where do words like that put Henry David Thoreau's protest against the Mexican-American War? From that resulted his 1849 classic "Civil Disobedience," a work that helped encourage the anti-slavery movement. Recall the late Sen. Mike Mansfield's prophetic description of the Vietnam War as a "grotesque mistake." Or the wide admiration for the lonely eloquence of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in his objections to the October Iraq resolution.

As the Iraq war runs its unpredictable course and the administration ponders its options in North Korea and elsewhere, the White House can hardly expect its go-it- virtually-alone foreign policy to go unchallenged in an independent branch of government. The problem with Daschle's statement is not what he said, but that he spoke too late to be a real participant.

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