It's been six months since nineteen fanatics controlled by Al Qaeda seized four airliners and wreaked bloody, fiery havoc on the United States. In the aftermath, stunned and angry Americans gave the Bush Administration their full-throated support for a war against the perpetrators of the atrocities and those who directed, financed or harbored them. Now, at the half-year mark, Bush's approval rating for this war still hovers above 80 percent, but hairline cracks are appearing in the consensus.
As John Nichols reports in this issue, Representative Dennis Kucinich's recent speech criticizing Bush's war went where no Democrat had gone before. His message--that Americans had not enlisted for the wider military effort the Administration is now undertaking or for the curtailment of civil liberties at home--evidently struck a nerve. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senator Robert Byrd lectured Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that there would be no more blank checks for the Pentagon, while Senate majority leader Tom Daschle mildly reproached the Administration by asking whatever happened to Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Omar.
Daschle's cautious criticism struck a Republican nerve. Senate minority leader Trent Lott blasted Daschle for trying to "divide the country." But the ancient dodge of hiding behind what Senator John Kerry in a recent speech called the "false cloak of patriotism" may not work this time around. Polls show that a majority of respondents don't want Bush to expand the war beyond Afghanistan unless there is hard evidence that the nation targeted is harboring terrorists. The renewal of fighting in Afghanistan with US troops heavily engaged is a reminder that there is an unfinished job in Afghanistan, not only mopping up Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants but helping the central government extend its writ outside Kabul. This is no time to embark on a global crusade against nebulous "evil."
The casualties US forces have been taking in the new fighting will mute the criticism, but Democrats, who had unwisely pledged to allow "no daylight" between them and Bush on the war, seem to be positioning themselves to begin asking some impolite questions. These are long overdue. The Administration has recently been committing US troops to a series of problematic missions, none of them more than distantly related to the original war on Al Qaeda authorized by Congress. In the strategically important Philippines, US "trainers" are in country aiding the hunt for a band of kidnappers; in Georgia US instructors will be at risk of becoming caught up in a civil war. There is high-level talk about committing US combat troops to Colombia's civil war, cynically transforming counternarcotics into counterterrorism. And then there is Iraq, glittering prize for a politically potent alliance of Pentagon hawks and Beltway conservatives.
Now that Democrats in Congress have regained their lost voice, they should use it more--asking tough questions, grilling officials about the new commitments, about exit and entrance strategies (i.e., what objectives are these troops being sent to achieve?). One might think Congress would be in a feisty mood these days after the way this Administration has ignored it--not even telling it about those secret bunkers where senior officials will ride out a terrorist strike. Apparently, the White House thinks Congress is expendable. It's certainly conducting the war as if it does.