A Double Standard On Dissent

J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, March 21, 2003

Wartime is dangerous to liberty and free expression.

When troops head into battle, the party in power is always tempted to condemn opposition and dissent as forms of treason. Suddenly the president is no longer referred to simply as "the president." He becomes "the commander in chief," a phrase that implies a lot more power.

But the more a president's supporters use the term "commander in chief" to enhance his authority, the more important it is to remember his role as the political leader of a free republic who is not endowed with infallibility, unlimited power or immunity from criticism. That, after all, is the essential difference between our country and Iraq. Our foe in this war is a brutal despot who responds to opponents not with nasty sound bites or 30-second attack ads but with torture and murder. To proclaim the right to dissent is to declare why the United States is a country worth fighting for.

The president's party took an early run this week at shutting down criticism with an all-hands-on-deck attack on Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, a Vietnam-era veteran who had the nerve to criticize the diplomatic failures leading up to this war.

"I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war," Daschle said on Monday, "saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country."

The way the Republicans reacted, you'd have thought Daschle had endorsed Saddam Hussein for reelection. "Those comments may not undermine the president as he leads us into war," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "And they may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close."

But a different standard seemed to apply after President Clinton launched his 1999 air campaign in Kosovo to protect ethnic Albanians from another dictator.

"I don't think we should be bombing in the Balkans," said Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. "I don't think NATO should be destroyed because we changed its mission to a humanitarian one." His colleague Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) accused Clinton of pursuing "the most inept foreign policy in the history of the United States."

For what it's worth, at the time, I criticized both parties for overly personalizing the Kosovo debate around Clinton. But the fact is that DeLay, Cunningham and the other critics were, like Daschle, simply exercising their right -- as Americans and as members of Congress -- to differ with the commander in chief.

Defenders of Daschle have focused on the Kosovo debate, but almost all of Clinton's military decisions came under withering Republican criticism. That's especially true of those he took in the middle of his sex scandal. Note, for example, this Republican reaction to Clinton's missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

"I just hope and pray that the decision that was made was made on the basis of sound judgment and made for the right reasons, and not made because it was necessary to save the president's job," said Dan Coats, then a senator from Indiana and now President Bush's ambassador to Germany. "Why now? Bin Laden has been known to be a terrorist for a long time. Why did this happen?"

In truth, many Americans -- including many in the peace movement arrayed against Bush's Iraq policy -- questioned Clinton's airstrikes. Surely Daschle's critics do not propose a double standard holding that while it was permissible to criticize Clinton's military decisions, it's wrong to criticize Bush's. Do they?

Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who voted against the Iraq war resolution, offered some useful words that both parties should tack on their walls in the coming weeks.

"I am absolutely convinced that the most important perspective is that people are obligated to respect opposing views," Leach said in an interview. "This is one of the closest, most difficult decisions we've confronted because this is an unprecedented circumstance. . . . What I suggest to everybody is that Americans are divided and that every thinking American is conflicted."

Leach warned against the simple dismissal of criticisms of American policy, particularly from our friends abroad: "If we are a poor respecter of other people's thoughts, our thoughts are not going to be well received at another time."

Leach's conclusion: "Whether one was doubtful of military action or whether one supports military action, everybody has an interest in making sure military action works."

Leach's quiet and respectful patriotism is a better guide to preserving both liberty and unity than bombast -- or the assumption that critics are automatically enemies of the state.