June 18, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Democrats’ Dilemma

Democrats face a dilemma: The war on terrorism has restored national security as a priority issue just as a new presidential-election campaign is beginning to take shape.

That's a problem because Democrats have long been perceived by voters as less competent than Republicans when it comes to national security. For nearly a quarter century, from Lyndon Johnson's retirement in the midst of the Vietnam War in 1969 to Bill Clinton's election in 1992 soon after the conclusion of the Cold War, Republicans continually occupied the Oval Office — with only one, brief interlude.

That interlude came with Jimmy Carter's election in 1977, a victory that was largely the fallout of the Watergate scandal. And during Carter's last 14 months in office, the headlines were dominated by the Iran hostage crisis — which did nothing to improve the public's perception of Democrats' ability to deal effectively with America's enemies abroad.

So now, Democrats have a choice: (1) Restore their party's credibility on matters of war and peace, or (2) bet that another scandal will get voters angry enough to again throw the Republican rascals out of the White House.

Such seasoned Democratic strategists as Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, are making a strong case in favor of the first option. “Our party and its leaders must wake up to the fact that we can no longer give short shrift to security issues if we hope to regain our status as the majority party,” she recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed coauthored with Timothy Bergreen, the founder of Democrats for National Security. They believe their party can — indeed must — resurrect the traditions of such muscular Democrats as Sen. Scoop Jackson, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy.

But returning to that tradition implies moving away from the more pacific approaches of such Democratic leaders as Walter Mondale, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Michael Dukakis. And the left wing of the Democratic party wants no part of such a shift.

Instead, Democrats such as presidential hopeful Howard Dean, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and Sen. Carl Levin and favor option (2); they're looking to the Carter election as a model. But not content to pray for a new Republican scandal, they're hoping to manufacture one by transforming the mystery over what's become of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction into a scandal. Or, as one Democratic strategist candidly said to me backstage at CNN the other day: “What's lying about sex compared to lying about war? This will be another Watergate.”

This week, The New Republic has joined the fray with a cover story, “Deception and Democracy: The Selling of the Iraq War.” What's most peculiar here is that TNR was in favor of the war — and still is. (My guess is that TNR's pro-war stance infuriated many of its readers, and this attack on President Bush's “honesty” is meant to try to make it up to them.)

The problem is that this line of attack is based on a patent falsehood. There can be no doubt that Saddam had WMDs. He used chemical weapons to slaughter thousands of Kurdish civilians, and against Iranian combatants as well. He attempted to build nuclear weapons but the Israelis bombed his nuclear facilities 21 years ago this month, and U.S. forces seized his rebuilt facilities after the Gulf War ten years later — and found that he was closer to building a bomb than U.S. intelligence analysts had estimated. CNN is right now reporting “Nuke Program Parts Unearthed in Baghdad.” Saddam admitted producing biological weapons (e.g. 8,500 liters of anthrax) and U.S. forces have found what appear to be mobile biological-weapons laboratories.

The only serious question is what happened to the products of Saddam's WMD programs? Are they hidden somewhere in Iraq? Were they transferred to another country, perhaps Syria and/or Lebanon? Or did he somehow get rid of them secretly — and in violation of U.N. resolutions demanding that destruction of WMD be verified by international inspectors? And, if so, did he leave in place a network of laboratories prepared to make new WMDs as soon as the heat was off, as some intelligence analysts believe?

This last scenario sounds particularly credible if you try to think like Saddam might have thought. He had reason to hope that the “international community” would rein Bush in and prevent an invasion. Failing that, he probably concluded that the U.S. would not prevail easily or quickly against his well-financed and war-hardened war machine. Surely, Iraq's military would put up a better fight than had the Taliban in Afghanistan — a primitive country in the eyes of an Arab Baathist chauvinist like Saddam.

Saddam may have calculated that if American troops both took a beating — a la Mogadishu — and were also unable to find any WMDs, pressure would quickly mount at home and abroad for a ceasefire that would leave Saddam in power — with his prestige greatly enhanced for having once again entered the lion's den and survived. Out would go the inspectors, the sanctions would be lifted and WMD production could resume posthaste.

Democrat scandalmongers are not pondering such questions. Instead, they are peddling a scenario so fantastic that not even Saddam's mouthpiece, Baghdad Bob, would have dared trot it out: That there were no WMDs and Bush knew it — but that he pretended otherwise as part of a vast (right-wing?) conspiracy that would have included Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Tony Blair — and, of course, Bill Clinton, who bombed what he said were suspected WMD sites in 1998, after the U.N. inspectors were forced to go home. And don't forget to include the U.N. Security Council, every member of which signed Resolution 1441 which did not ask whether Saddam had WMDs but rather gave his regime “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.”

The Democrats have a dilemma. Donna Brazile, Tim Bergreen, and other sober-minded Democrats have a way out, a way that will make it harder for Republicans to win elections but easier for Americans to become more secure in an era of great peril. By contrast, Howard Dean and his friends are digging a hole that it could take Democrats a generation to get out of.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism.