My Big Fat Iraq Debate

Bush, Iraq, Saddam Hussein
AP / CBS
Luckily, the petty partisanship of Washington's Iraq debate isn't rubbing off on the public, according to the latest Against the Grain commentary by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
If there is one person who can persuade me that we should wage war on Iraq, it's Al Gore. If there's one person who can persuade me that we shouldn't, it's George Bush.

Neither one of these guys has the statesmanship, the gravitas, the moral authority to make me believe that their positions rise above their politics. Sorry.

When I tried to listen to Al Gore's coming-out speech on Iraq, it was hard to drown out the cranking sound of that political calculator in his chest. When I read the speech, I found it fairly well argued and sensible. It's just that it had all the marks of a ploy: "show them all I have cojones, take on a popular president over the number one issue, separate from the other D's I'm running against, buck the polls."

Similarly, when I listened to the President's speech at the U.N. and his subsequent campaign speeches, I heard...campaign speeches, and the sounds of the Dow plunging and consumer confidence croaking.

But when I read the U.N. speech, it was also fairly persuasive. (And when I read Vice President Tony Blair's dossier, I was further impressed.) It's just that I can't get that one quote from Chief of Staff Andrew Card out of my head, the one where's he talking about selling the voters on the administration's Iraq policy: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

(Note: In earlier editions of this column, I inaccurately quoted Mr. Card. I quoted him as saying, "From an advertising point of view, you don't launch a new product line until after Labor Day." The incorrect version of the quote was in a transcript of Mr. Gore's speech on Iraq. I apologize for the serious mistake, which was entirely my fault.)

War as "product line." The Founders would be so proud. Lincoln too.

But, having just seen "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," I have new faith in noisy fighting like this, in happy endings and, like Gus Portokalos, in the universal healing power of Windex.

So, on the nuke Iraq question, I'm not surprised to find myself in broad agreement with the "majority" — as in, a "majority" of those polled by CBS News. Our most recent poll shows people have extremely sensible and sophisticated views on the debate. And their motives are pure.

Of those polled, 68 percent now approve of the U.S. taking military action against Iraq. Of course, back in June, before the topic was quite so hot, 70 percent were for military action. My guess is that about 70 percent of Americans would have approved of invading Iraq at any time since 1991.

While the "majority" is hawkish, it does want the President to do plenty of waiting and consulting before invading.

Sixty-five percent think President Bush should get congressional approval for a strike against Saddam and 52 percent think Congress should wait for the U.N. to act before voting. Sixty-one percent believe that the U.S. should wait for support from our allies before acting, 31 percent think we can go it alone.

While only 43 percent think the U.S. should "pre-empt" or attack first an unnamed enemy that might attack us, 58 percent believe in Mr. Bush's pre-emption doctrine when it comes to Saddam. That's a reasonable view since Saddam is the one active dictator who has both big weapons and a history of actually attacking other countries.

And here's something interesting: 44 percent think that attacking Iraq will make a terrorist strike against America more likely. Only 18 percent think a strike will lessen the threat. That, by the way, is Gore's argument: whacking Saddam will hurt the overall war on terror by alienating our terror-fighting friends and throwing napalm on the perpetual flames of the Middle East.

So in a nutshell, the "majority" and I certainly agree with the president that Saddam is a dire, unpredictable threat, but then he has been for a long time. And we agree that the President has made his position clear recently, but that hasn't had much impact on our assessment of the need for war against Iraq. The question "why now, exactly?" still looms.

We agree with Gore that attacking Iraq could very well hurt the war on terror, but that is a distinct question from whether Saddam needs to be vanquished before he uses chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. We agree with Gore that it would be best for the U.S. to act with the advice and consent of Congress, the U.N. and our major allies. But, again, that doesn't settle the question of what we do if we ultimately decide Iraq is a clear and present danger and much of the rest of the world disagrees.

All this doesn't quite add up to a coherent position, yet. I think that's an honest place to be.

The Washington debate doesn't have that quality. Neither party, neither set of leaders has been able to convincingly get the partisanship out of the program. And now, the pretense of transcendental politics is over. Daschle, Gephardt, Gore, Byrd, Bush, Cheney, Rove and the others are now openly aiming for the kneecaps.

But maybe there's a happy ending. Maybe we could invade France, an unreliable ally but a great source of food and fashion. Or Germany, since its prime minister has "dissed" us on Iraq. Or Saudi Arabia, if it's oil and sand we want. Or we could catch Osama.

Or we could get some Windex and make the whole thing go away.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer