The Senate's fake Iraq debate.

The Senate's fake Iraq debate.

The Senate's fake Iraq debate.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 4 2002 6:27 PM

Say You Want a Resolution

The Senate's fake Iraq debate.

As the Senate opens its debate on whether to authorize the use of force in Iraq, senators rise to do what they have always done best: talk about themselves and each other and the importance of the Senate. Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Democratic Sen. Bob Byrd of West Virginia, two of the stuffiest members of this supremely stuffy club, recall the "great oratory" of the Senate's past war debates and the glory days of the Persian Gulf War. Warner, a horsey gentleman who waves his glasses around for effect, says this debate, too, will be "historic."


But it isn't. Today's debate is lackadaisical and disorganized. The Democrats don't want to talk about Iraq. They keep trying to change the subject to domestic issues: Medicare, election reform, the environment. At one point this morning, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, rises to demand that the Senate bring up and pass an education spending bill, but as he looks around the chamber, he realizes that he can't. Why? Because parliamentary rules require that a Republican be present, and not one Republican senator is on the floor. So much for the great Iraq debate.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Indeed, the defining oddity of this war debate is its unseriousness. The arguments made by proponents of the war resolution are familiar and weak. Warner says Saddam Hussein might use nuclear weapons against American troops. In the next breath, he says Saddam had biological and chemical weapons last time but never used them. Several senators make a fuss about the meager presence of al-Qaida in Iraq. Several ask whether anyone doubts that terrorists would use Saddam's nukes against us if they got them. Nobody explains why Saddam would hand them over. The arguments on the other side are even more lame. Opponents want to wait for the United Nations to act, but they offer no reason to think it will do so. They warn of American isolation but never grapple with whether avoiding isolation is worth letting Saddam get nukes.

The debate, it seems, isn't really about whether to go to war. It's about what message the Senate should send to Iraq and the rest of the world by saying we will or won't go to war. It's about posturing and poker. Proponents of the war resolution say they'd prefer U.N. to U.S. intervention, but in order to get the former, we have to act as though we're choosing the latter. "The United Nations is now deliberating," says Warner. "If … we show our resolve as a unified Congress behind the president," he argues, the U.N. Security Council will respond by getting tough with Saddam "in such a way that we can avoid a war." Other senators make the same point: A vote for the war resolution is a vote against war.

In one of the debate's strangest moments, Warner tells his colleagues that they must pass a firm resolution against Saddam because "he has to be convinced that American and international resolve is real." Real? Here's the chief Republican sponsor of the resolution, declaring on television that senators should vote for it in order to make Saddam think their resolve is real. Do they think Saddam doesn't get congressional transcripts in Baghdad? If you were Saddam, and you saw U.S. senators telling each other they could avoid war by spooking you with a war resolution, how impressed would you be?

Opponents of the resolution are even less willing to address the substance of the issue. They're too afraid of antagonizing other countries to answer whether Saddam's acquisition of nukes is an acceptable alternative. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says the Senate should reject a resolution calling for U.S. action and should vote instead for a resolution calling for U.N. action, because that will convince Saddam that the United Nations will act, and therefore he'll back down and accept unfettered weapons inspections. The whole debate is about creating appearances rather than actually doing something.

The opponents don't argue against war per se; they argue that Congress should wait to see what the United Nations does or, better yet, should pass a resolution saying they're for whatever the United Nations decides to do. Byrd, a little white-haired man, struts around his desk like a rooster, quoting the Bible and the Constitution. "There's nothing in this Constitution about pre-emptive strikes!" he thunders. So what is Byrd's principled position? He wants senators to go home and ask their constituents what to do. Saddam must be shaking in his boots.