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OCTOBER 7, 2002

The Wonk

When Donald Rumsfeld arrived at a Senate Armed Services Committee
hearing to testify about a possible war with Iraq last week, he
faced a less- than-fearsome group of interrogators. Seven of the 13
Democratic senators seated above him were freshmen. Even the more
senior Democrats, accustomed to debating domestic policy, seemed
out of their element. And it didn't take long for that gravitas
deficit to become painfully evident. Rumsfeld talked down to the
junior Democrats. When Mark Dayton of Minnesota haltingly asked what
has happened to make the United States hurry to war, for instance,
Rumsfeld snapped at him: "What's different? What's different is
three thousand people were killed!" Senior Democrats struggled as
well. After the defense secretary explained that Saddam Hussein's
underlings would likely be afraid to use nuclear, chemical, or
biological weapons for fear of U.S. retribution, Kennedy seemed to
hear the opposite. "So if he says go, they'll go. That's what I'm
hearing back from you," a puzzled-looking Kennedy said. "No, you're
misunderstanding," Rumsfeld testily replied. And the
ultra-long-winded West Virginian Robert Byrd bogged down Rumsfeld
in tangential arguments about the Biological Weapons Convention and
a Newsweek article on American support for Saddam in the 1980s. As
Byrd waved the article in the air, repeating the phrase, "Are we,
in fact, now facing the possibility of reaping what we have sown?"
the audience laughed at his theatrics. The Democrats had picked this
fight with Rumsfeld--and he was routing them.Finally, the committee chairman, Democrat Carl Levin, cut Byrd off.
At that moment he seemed like the only grown-up in the room. And
that's symbolic of the bookish Michigan liberal's role in his party
right now. Thanks to a safe seat, a lack of national ambition, and
the credibility that comes from his detailed mastery of defense
arcana, Levin can say what most of his Democratic colleagues feel
but are afraid to assert: that there's no good reason to go after
Iraq now. Although Democrats like Tom Daschle and Al Gore fired
back at the White House this week, there's little doubt that most
will back a strong resolution next month. Unfortunately for Levin's
fellow skeptics, there aren't many others like him in the party.
Which helps explain why George W. Bush's first victory of this war
has come against the Democrats.

In many ways Carl Levin--a former Detroit city councilor and civil
rights lawyer--is an unlikely spokesman for his party on military
issues. The last Democrat to head the Armed Services Committee,
former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, showed, via his conservatism on
domestic issues, pro-Pentagon views, and Southern drawl, that he
was no holdover from the party's anti-Vietnam past. Levin is
different, following more in the tradition of former House Armed
Services Chairman Les Aspin, another brainy dove with a shambling
appearance and a voracious appetite for policy.

So while Levin doesn't command the media attention of a Joe Biden or
a John Kerry, Democrats say he wields considerable private
influence. One party leadership aide says that in private meetings
Levin is accorded a rare deference by his colleagues on military
issues. Just as Al Gore and Nunn proved themselves by boning up on
throw-weights and reentry vehicles in the '80s, Levin "impressed
everyone by mastering the arcana of defense policy," says Will
Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. John McCain publicly
underscored Levin's stature when he said during his 2000
presidential bid that, if elected, he'd ask Levin to help advise
him on America's national security priorities.

Although Levin opposed the 1991 Gulf war resolution--saying he
feared "a broader conflagration in the Middle East with unknown
results" (oops)--he is generally considered a foreign policy
moderate. He is a devout internationalist, enthusiastically
supported Bill Clinton's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and
focuses on arms control and nonproliferation. He's also stern enough
to propose, as he did in January, that the United States withdraw
its troops from Saudi Arabia in favor "of a place that is more
hospitable." He has supported the military spending increases of
the past few years but often opposes flashy new weapons systems
like the B-2 bomber and national missile defense. Just four days
before the September 11 attacks, in fact, Levin's committee stripped
$1.3 billion from Bush's missile-defense request and redirected
nearly half of the money to anti-terrorism programs.

Unlike other Democrats, who tried to dodge the debate over war with
Iraq when it began this summer, Levin quickly presented a position
that was unusually coherent. And unlike many other
Democrats--including presidential contenders John Kerry, John
Edwards, and, more recently, Gore--Levin focused not on the
procedural questions of arms inspectors and international support
but on Bush's fundamental premise that an Iraq attack would be a
good thing.

His basic argument is this: Until it's clear Iraq poses an imminent
threat, the United States should continue to contain and deter it.
The threshold for military action, Levin told NPR earlier this
month, would only be "if there's evidence that [Iraq] participated
in nine-eleven, or if they are on the verge of using a weapon of
mass destruction, or we are persuaded that they have a nuclear
weapon, for instance, and are about to use it." Saddam is concerned
foremost with his own survival, Levin says, and, fearing
retaliation, is thus not likely to use weapons of mass destruction
against the United States. That is, unless we go into Iraq with the
stated intent of capturing or killing him. "We know if we attack
him, he's going to use every weapon he's got, including biological
and chemical weapons," Levin said on ABC's "Nightline" on September
4. "The result of our attack would be his using the very weapons we
are trying to deter." What other Democrat has made this case so
unapologetically?

But coherence hasn't been enough for Levin to win over his
colleagues, whom he has been urging to put up more resistance.
Levin has continued to hold hearings airing doubts about the war.
But he now seems resigned to the likelihood of a war and is hoping
it can be conditioned to the U.N.'s blessing. "[I]f force is going
to be used, having the weight of the world behind the use of force
is very, very important," he told the Fox News Channel last Sunday.
Now Levin says he may introduce an alternative resolution to this
effect when the Senate votes next month. But Levin seems unlikely
to win that fight either. And in any case it's probably too late to
slow the stampede by his most prominent colleagues to back the
White House. Most Democrats expect an Iraq resolution to pass with
overwhelming support within their party. As an aide to one
Democrat, with political pressures to consider, puts it: "Levin's
got nothing to lose. He can let it rip." One suspects a lot of
other Democrats privately wish they could, too.

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