If there is a point to having a Congress in a time of war, it has been made this week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on whether the United States could, should or would want to launch a military attack on Iraq with the purpose of deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Though this Congress has done a miserable job of overseeing the ill-defined "war on terrorism" that continues to cost an unconscionable number of Afghan lives and an unconscionable portion of US tax dollars, the hearings on Iraq actually saw senators approaching the prospect of an all-out assault on Iraq with at least a measure of respect for their constitutionally mandated responsibility to offer the executive branch advice and consent with regard to war-making.
Organized by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joseph Biden, D-Del., a cautious player when it comes to challenging presidential war-making, the hearings were not nearly so revealing as the moment demanded. (Biden did not, for instance, demand that squabbling members of the Bush foreign policy, military and political teams appear to explain themselves. Nor did he call Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq who, as a self-proclaimed "card-carrying Republican," says of Bush administration sabre rattling regarding Iraq: "This is not about the security of the United States. This is about domestic American politics. The national security of the United States of America has been hijacked by a handful of neo-conservatives who are using their position of authority to pursue their own ideologically-driven political ambitions.The day we go to war for that reason is the day we have failed collectively as a nation.")
Yet the testimony from foreign policy specialists, Iraqi dissidents, retired generals and United Nations aides offered senators something more than the sum of its parts.
While many of the witnesses were supportive of a US-led attempt to remove Saddam, they could not agree on the threat - if any - that the Iraqi president poses to the United States, how to counter that threat, the dangers to Iraqi civilians and US troops, the prospects for success, or the prospects for stability in a post-Saddam Iraq or the Middle East.
As an alternative to war, Richard Butler, the former chief UN arms inspector in Iraq, argued for diplomacy, suggesting that the United States and Russia attempt to get Iraq to accept serious weapons inspections. The Council on Foreign Relations' Morton Halperin called for a tighter economic embargo. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney made the pitch for a 72-hour air, land and sea assault. Other military experts counseled against the Dr. Strangelove approach, and Gen. Tommy Franks, the US Central Command chief who oversees the US presence in Afghanistan and would command any invasion of Iraq, complained: "I think all of the speculation (about attacking Iraq) ... is not helpful with respect to Afghanistan or any of the other issues."
If there was any agreement, it was on the point that removing Saddam would saddle the United States with the more difficult tasks of uniting opposition forces, protecting the Kurds and maintaining stability. There was also agreement that these duties would require a multi-year commitment of billions of US dollars that Washington may not be prepared to make. The speculation that the United States might win the war but lose the peace had Biden declaring, "It would be a tragedy if we removed a tyrant in Iraq, only to leave chaos in his wake."
That chaos would extend beyond the borders of Iraq, warned University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami, who said a US invasion of Iraq could destabilize friendly Arab governments. "Even if the Iraqi people have a happy outcome, I believe that most people in the region will see this as American imperialism," he explained.
Though it may not have been the purpose of these hearings, they have provided a clear signal for the Senate and America: For all the Bush administration's election-year rhetoric about ill-defined threats from a man few others in the world fear, there is no agreement on the need, the value, the purpose or the prospects for a full-scale US military attack on Iraq. Except, perhaps, among George W. Bush's political advisers.