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Congress and Iraq: Having Their Say

September 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Congress and Iraq. Senators and House members are returning to Washington after a month listening to constituents. President Bush will discuss Iraq tomorrow with congressional leaders. We take up the issue now with Senators Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois; Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas; and Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas; and from the House, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio.

First, on the basic issue of taking preemptive military action against Iraq, what is your position on that now, Senator Hutchison?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, I think certainly this is a new era of preemptive strike for our defense. And I think it needs to be thoroughly discussed. I think it is something that has merit, for sure, and if…we certainly don’t want to wait until we know there’s a nuclear weapon that is aimed at us or any of our allies, but I do think it is another step, and it’s a stretching of a policy to do a preemptive strike, and we ought to discuss it and know exactly what we’re doing.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have the impression from — after this month’s recess that the people in Texas, or at least the people you talk to, have some concerns that need to be addressed?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Absolutely. People will support the president, and they certainly give him the acknowledgment that he knows more than the rest of us. But I do think that people want to know, with all that’s going on in the Middle East, why is Iraq a particular threat to U.S. security? And I think when the president makes that case– and I believe he will before he takes any action– that the people will be behind him.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, were you asked a lot of questions in Illinois about this issue?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think next to the economy this was the number one issue. People were really skeptical about what they were hearing. And frankly, the message out of Washington wasn’t clear. President Bush spoke in Texas, and told us that he brought his national security advisers together, and Iraq didn’t come up, and warned America against a frenzy of speculation about Iraq.

And then the following week, Vice President Cheney had two major addresses frankly calling us to war against Iraq. We see some diversity of opinion here between Secretary of State Colin Powell on pushing for UN inspections and a comment by Vice President Cheney saying, “it’s a waste of time.” It really isn’t clear what the message is in the administration, or really what the goal is in this publicity campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what do you tell people when they ask you about this issue?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I tell them to take a look at that Constitution that both president and the members of the Senate were sworn to uphold. And it says in Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, Congress shall have the power to declare war, not the president.

President Bush’s father learned that lesson. And I think he did the right thing coming to Congress for the Persian Gulf War authorization and receiving the approval, the ultimate unanimous approval, after the initial test vote of the American people in Congress. That’s what a president needs to go to war successfully.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback, what did you hear in Kansas about Iraq?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: A lot of concern. People don’t like Saddam Hussein. They agree he’s an evil man; that he should be out. Concern, though, about “Can we do it?” “How many troops would it take?” “What would be the after effect?” Was actually the biggest area of concern that I heard people express was, “Yes, we can get him out. What happens in the region?” “What happens throughout the world?” “Does Saddam in his final throes take a shot at Israel?” “Does he activate sleeper cells here?” “Does he have those?” Those are really the types of concerns I heard most about, is what would happen after Saddam, or as we were trying to take him out?

JIM LEHRER: Picking up on Senator Durbin’s point, Senator Brownback, did you pick up from your folks in Kansas whether or not they want you and the other members of Congress to be involved in this, or are they willing to let the president make this decision?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: You know, a lot of people just kind of left that one alone. I think it would be wise for the president to engage the Congress, if for no other reason to build the public support. This is a major engagement. It is something that has been contemplated for some period of time. Back in 1998, we had passed the Iraq Liberation Act that called for regime change at that time. President Clinton signed it into law. It passed the House of Representatives, I think, with fewer than 40 dissenting votes — a unanimous consent in the Senate.

So, there’s been express support from the Congress for some period of time for regime change in Baghdad. And I think what you’re seeing now is the president getting serious about this and saying, “What would it take to actually move this on forward?”

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Kucinich, where do you come down on whether or not whether you or other members of Congress should be involved in this decision?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, as you know, I represent an ethnically diverse constituency. Over the Labor Day holiday I had a chance to go to over half a dozen events. And one in particular is characteristic in the Slovak community. I talked to hundreds of people, and many people brought up Iraq. And people were expressing concern about what happens to their grandchildren if they’re called up to go over to Iraq to fight — and wondering about America’s purpose here, what our intention is, what’s to be gained? They want to see America negotiate a resolution of this. They want to see a path to peace. I haven’t heard a call for war across the land in the way that some of our top officials in Washington are beating the drums for war. People expect us to find a way to solve this without going to war.

JIM LEHRER: Is that how you feel about it, too?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Of course I do. I mean, I don’t think there’s any justification to go to war with Iraq. There’s no evidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. There’s no — there’s nothing that says that they have the ability to deliver such weapons, if they did have them. There’s been no stated intention on their part to harm the United States. I think that we have to…we have an obligation to defend ourselves, but Iraq doesn’t have the ability to hurt the United States. But we could hurt ourselves in a world community by moving unilaterally, by for the first time launching a war of aggression, by talking about preemptive strikes what we’re really saying is that America, because we have the power, we can wage war anywhere we want.

I think America does best when we work with the international community to resolve matters of global security. And I think that we still have a chance to do that. That’s what Secretary Powell is trying to do: Calling for the UN to be involved; calling for weapons inspections. We need to go slow with this. We need to stop this war talk. The war talk is really damaging to America. It’s unsettling to our people at home, and it’s unsettling to nations around the world.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, do you agree with that — there’s too much war talk, and it’s damaging us as well as our allies and everybody else?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, I think the president is trying to put out there that there is a threat from Iraq. Clearly, when you see the allies’ response and reaction, the support is not there. I would never be one to say that America should go it alone… couldn’t go it alone. But I do think it should be the last resort. I think just from a cost standpoint, if nothing else, having the shared responsibility to go after an enemy that is common to all of us would be preferable. So I do think that we need to look at every avenue of bringing other people in and showing the threat. People need to know why Iraq, why now? If the case can be made, I think everyone, at least our major allies, will be supportive. But I just think we’re not there yet.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the case can be made… based on what you know, Senator, do you think the case can be made?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, I think the case has been started, but we don’t know what position Saddam Hussein is in. We don’t know what his intentions are toward the United States. If we are going to send our troops into war, we must know that there is a security interest of the United States at stake. And I think that’s what all of us are saying. And I think that that will be the bottom line for me and for others in Congress.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, there’s also the issue today that’s come up again. It has to do with the inspectors, the UN inspectors being allowed back into Iraq. There’s some, of course, dispute about that, as to whether or not that really matters. Does it matter to you? Should we insist on the inspectors going back in and use that as a way that could lead eventually to military action? Should that be a first step?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Absolutely, because, frankly, look what we’re doing here. We’re enforcing a mandate from the United Nations, a mandate for inspection, a mandate which Saddam Hussein, when he lost a war, agreed to. That he would allow these inspections for weapons of mass destruction. And four or five years ago, the whole process just broke down to zero. We have to return. We have to say to the United Nations, “Now, follow your own mandate. Let’s have enforceable, verifiable inspections, and let’s find out exactly what kind of an arsenal he has.” We know he has chemical and biological weapons. Maybe he has more. Let’s do it. And if he refuses, if he drags his feet, it clearly is going to strengthen our position in the global community to bring support together.

But let me just tell you, if I wanted to introduce a resolution today on the Senate floor calling Saddam Hussein a thug who is a threat to his own people and to the region, and calling for a regime change, I think we’d get a unanimous vote. But the appropriate step to be taken is what we’re debating here. And a massive land invasion of Iraq is a major undertaking by the United States. The people of the United States should be in on that decision. They should make it through their members of Congress as the Constitution requires.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback, do you agree with that, to back up on that? Do you agree with Senator Durbin that this is such a monumental issue that the American public should be not only invited in, should be encouraged to participate, everybody should be talking about this?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: I do. And I think what the president and the members of his staff and the cabinet have done over the last month has been constructive in that effort to try to invite people in. Since 1998, it’s been the stated policy of this country, as passed by the Congress and signed by the president at that time, President Clinton at that time, to have regime change in Baghdad. What you’ve had now lately taking place is the president seriously stepping forward to say, “What would it take for that to occur?”

But I think you’ve got to invite in, to have the sustained support of the American people, you need to invite the American people in to have a discussion via the Congress. And I would hope the Congress would ultimately vote. I don’t know that we can resolve here the constitutional issue whether it’s required of the president to have to that or not, but I think he should do that to get the support of the American people.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on this inspectors issue, Senator?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: I’d like to see inspectors back in. They’ve been run out for several years. We don’t know what has happened in the interim. I think it would be a wise move by Saddam Hussein, who I don’t think has been particularly noted for wise moves, but has been crafty, if he would let in inspectors and have them unfettered. We had a problem previously is when they got in and then they limited their access. If they go back in, and I think they should, and I think it would be a right thing to do — it has to be completely unfettered. They have to be able to move freely around Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: But do you feel that this is a card that we should play to the hilt before we contemplate military action?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: We’ve been playing that card for a long period of time. And Saddam continues to play cat and mouse with it, kind of trotting out the possibility and then pulling it back, and trotting it out and pulling it back. I think we just move on forward. And then if he decides to let inspectors in unfettered, that could change the dynamic around. But if he doesn’t, I think we continue to move forward.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Kucinich, how do you feel about this? How important is that as an issue to you?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: First of all, I think all this talk about regime change is counterproductive for what our goals should be, and that is to make sure that Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction. I mean, what does Hussein have to gain if he is to come forward and permit inspections, and at the same time, the United States is saying, “Well, we’re going to knock you out anyway”?

What we need to do is to negotiate removal of any weapons. Get the inspectors back in there. If there’s weapons, let’s get them out of there. But this whole idea of regime change is a very dangerous position for America to take.

Are we now going to be not only the world’s policemen, but also the world’s arbiter as to who should be in charge of what nation where? That’s a very precarious position to take, particularly in the case of Iraq, because after Hussein no one yet has said what comes next.

So I think the best thing that we should do is stop the war talk, start talking peace, start talking negotiations, start talking about getting those inspectors back, verifying whether or not there are weapons of mass destruction — if there are, getting the international community to take the measures to get rid of those weapons, and then finding a way to bring Iraq back into the world community so that we can begin to refocus our efforts to create peace in the Middle East, to try to meet the challenge of terrorism abroad, and to go on and focus on the issues in our own country: the economy and health care; Social Security and education, all these things that mean something deeply to the American people would somehow end up being shoved aside in this passionate rhetoric that’s being whipped up to try to foment a war in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Is that’s what’s going on, Senator Hutchison, trying to foment a war in Iraq?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Now, I think that the president is trying to put before the American people that this is a possibility. I think the war talk may be a negotiation for peace. It may be a negotiation for weapons inspectors. I think he is laying on the table what are some of the options, and I think that will be developed. I think we need to know a lot more. I think we need to know what the options of acting are, and what the options of not acting are. And I certainly think that the weapons inspectors going in could be a clincher.

I think we should have a short timeframe and we should have a clarity of purpose, but I think seeing if they could go in and Saddam Hussein would say, “Go anywhere, I’m clean,” then we’d know one thing, or we’d have a good chance. But if he does what he did last time, then I think we should act swiftly. We should have acted when Saddam Hussein kicked us out the last time. That would have been the provocation, but we didn’t. We’ve now gone two more years. And so I think we have to set the case again, but I think it needs to be quick rather than giving him more time to do mischief, if that is in fact what he’s doing.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, thank you all four very much.