What's missing from the Senate's Iraq debate? Senators.

What's missing from the Senate's Iraq debate? Senators.

What's missing from the Senate's Iraq debate? Senators.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 7 2002 6:18 PM

Slouching Toward Saddam

The Senate debates the importance of debating Iraq.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Three weeks ago, President Bush warned that if the United Nations didn't act against Saddam Hussein, it would become nothing more than a "debating society." He must have been thinking about the U.S. Senate. This is supposed to be the second day of the Senate debate over whether to authorize the use of force in Iraq, but the atmosphere on the Senate floor is devoid of urgency. Indeed, it's devoid of senators.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

At 1 p.m., when the debate is scheduled to begin, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is holding forth to an empty chamber. "I'm interested in hearing debate on the floor of the United States Senate" about the comparative merits of unilateral and multilateral action, he says. Specter and his colleagues are supposed to be providing that, but not until 20 minutes later does Sen. Bob Byrd, D-W.V., wander in, offering Specter someone to whom he can say with annoyance, "I look forward to having more of our colleagues on the floor."

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Specter asks Byrd about the constitutionality of the war resolution sought by Bush. Byrd says he can't answer the question, but of one thing he's sure: "Such questions … are worthy of our attention." Byrd goes on to raise a number of additional questions about the necessity, costs, and consequences of war. These, too, he leaves unanswered. His concern is that Congress is "rushing" to make a decision before the election. "Why are we in such a hurry?" he asks. "Wouldn't it be better to go home and listen to the people?" I glance around the gallery at the citizens who have come here to watch the debate. The people, if not their senators, are here to listen to Byrd. His reply is to dump the question back on them.

Around 1:45, an entrance to the right of the chamber brings the first note of genuine gravity into the debate. Away from the cameras, Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who lost both legs and his right arm in Vietnam, is being hoisted into his seat by two aides. This is one of those things you don't get to see on C-SPAN. We're about to hear from somebody who understands war and its price firsthand.

As Cleland begins speaking about the lessons he learned in Vietnam, Byrd walks around the back of the chamber and sits down two seats away from him, near a side door. At first, I assume that Byrd was having trouble hearing Cleland; then I imagine that he's coming nearer as a gesture of respect. I'm wrong on both counts. Less than a minute into Cleland's remarks, Byrd gets up, walks right past him out the door, and leaves the chamber for the rest of the debate. The seat near Cleland was part of Byrd's exit strategy.

It's a shame nobody's around to hear Cleland's speech. He makes several insightful and constructive points. Congress' error in Vietnam wasn't the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, he says; it was the failure to monitor and control the subsequent escalation of American commitment. He savages House Republicans for undermining national unity during the war in Kosovo, and he cautions Democrats not to repeat that mistake. He enumerates six questions posed by Colin Powell about the use of force, and he answers each of them, concluding that he will vote for the resolution Bush wants.

Cleland is followed by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who delivers a somewhat embarrassing speech about the unimportance of presidential intellect. All truly presidential decisions, he argues, are so laden with unknowable factors and consequences that they must be made by instinct rather than intellect. Besides, he says, every president has smart people around him to make the decisions that can be made on that basis. People said President Truman was dumb, Bennett recalls, but Truman's gut made him great. In case anyone is uncertain about whose lack of intellect Bennett is now defending, he concludes reassuringly that the decision whether to use force in Iraq will be made in the president's gut—"not in George Bush's head."

The Senate's pretense that a lively exchange is underway, when in fact nobody but the speaker is on the floor, isn't unique to the Iraq debate. But in the context of war, given what senators have said about the gravity of that subject, the gap between pretense and reality is particularly galling. After sitting out the debate, senators stroll into the chamber and say to the camera, "As I listen to the debate on the floor …" They read each other's op-eds into the Congressional Record. (If you expect them to deliver their thoughts to the Senate and then recycle them for the media, you've got it backward.) They keep interrupting the Iraq debate to indulge in what they call "morning business," which extends well into the afternoon and consists of everything other than the business at hand.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., rises and asks to speak "as if in morning business." It isn't hard to see that he won't be addressing Iraq. Beside him on an easel stands a 4-foot-tall blowup of a Washington Post editorial headlined, "Negative Al Gore." "I didn't put it up here to be negative to Al Gore," says Domenici as he begins to explain how the current recession actually began during the Clinton administration. What was that again about national unity?