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Analysis: What Members of Congress Need to Hear From the Bush Administration about Iraq

Weekend Edition Saturday: August 31, 2002

Iraq Question Simmers

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The U.S. Congress returns to work after the Labor Day holiday and is expected to take up the widening debate over a possible US military strike against Iraq. Now the Bush administration has said it will seek some explicit approval from Congress for military action, but many lawmakers say they have yet to be convinced and describe their constituents as uneasy. House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, Republican, of course, spoke this week from his hometown of Chicago.

Representative HENRY HYDE (Chairman, House International Relations Committee): I think there's confusion. There's searching for information. I don't think they're convinced yet of the dangerousness of this situation.

SIMON: NPR Steve Inskeep covers national security issues and joins us in the studios.

Steve, thanks for being with us.

STEVE INSKEEP reporting:

Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What does Mr. Hyde's reservations--and we could tick them off, the number of prominent Republicans--what do they mean for the possibility of war?

INSKEEP: Well, President Bush does say that he is going to consult Congress in some fashion this fall. It's not clear exactly what that means. We will see probably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other people who favor an attack against Iraq going up to Congress. At least three different congressional committees, probably more, are going to be holding hearings to at least talk about this situation. Members of Congress are insisting that there has to be some kind of vote, some kind of official congressional approval.

It's hard to imagine that if the administration asks for congressional approval that they won't get it. You'll remember that before the Gulf War there was a lot of congressional skepticism and angst about going to war then. But in the end, the administration got what it what it wanted. All the same, though, there is very deep skepticism, and you hear it not just from Democrats but also from a number of Republicans. And, in fact, the Republicans have been speaking out more forcefully than the Democrats in many instances.

SIMON: Well, detail some of those concerns for us now, if you could, that the Republicans are expressing. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Yeah, well, the lawmakers are essentially asking, 'Well, OK. How do you justify this attack?' This is an unusual situation where the United States is contemplating what Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia calls an unprovoked attack against a sovereign state. What is the evidence, lawmakers are saying, that shows that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is so dangerous that it justifies that kind of attack?

The second question they're asking is: If you go to war against Iraq, how do you keep it from overwhelming other US priorities in the Middle East, around the world? They suggest that it could, and there is some disagreement about this, but some skeptics suggest that it could mess up the Middle East peace process which is already in serious trouble, that the war could spread, that Iraq could attack Israel, that the war could spread to South Asia, even. There are grave concerns being raised by the skeptics here, anyway, about the possibility that a war with Iraq could overwhelm other US priorities.

SIMON: Let's add a couple of voices to the debate that have expressed themselves again in the past 48 hours. Former President Bill Clinton says that he believes that Saddam Hussein now seems to have maximum incentive not to use weapons of mass destruction and then cautions that could change in the event of the attack. On the other hand, Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was lately seen by some people on this side of the pond to be waffling a bit, now says--he's on a three-day trip to Africa. He says, `The world cannot stand by and allow Iraq to be in flagrant breach of all the Union Nations resolutions on developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.' So Britain seems to be back, or at least this British government seems to be back, supporting this policy.

INSKEEP: And there you hear the two sides of the debate; President Clinton essentially saying, 'If we go to war with Iraq, if we try to take out Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein no longer has any incentive to behave at all,' and Tony Blair apparently endorsing the Bush administration position at least for the moment, that you simply have to do something. If you leave this man in place, ultimately something terrible is going to happen. And that is the question that members of Congress and senators are going to have to be dealing with over the next few months.

SIMON: And we would be naive to think that an election campaign won't contribute to this debate.

INSKEEP: It certainly will, but it's going to continue after the election, I think, too.

SIMON: OK, Steve, thanks very much.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

SIMON: NPR's Steve Inskeep.

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