Speaking Out in Wartime

The Washington Post, Friday, March 21, 2003

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

-- Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

THE COUNTRY has embarked on a war that many of its citizens and elected officials oppose. We believe it to be necessary, as we have said, but we recognize that thoughtful people of goodwill certainly will arrive at different conclusions about its wisdom or timing. Even supporters may question aspects of Bush administration policy, such as its inability to garner more international support. All of this is legitimately open for discussion, even with hostilities underway. All Americans, no matter their views on the war, hope for a swift and successful conclusion and for the safety of the troops. All are also entitled -- and should be encouraged -- to debate the war's advisability, its conduct and its aftermath.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) put this proposition to an early test this week. We disagree strongly with Mr. Daschle's remarks, which unreasonably blamed the conflict on the Bush administration. "I'm saddened that the president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are now forced to war," Mr. Daschle said Monday, shortly before Mr. Bush issued his ultimatum. "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." Yes, the administration's diplomacy was heavy-handed, but Mr. Daschle has his but-for causation wrong. We are "forced to war" and "have to give up one life" not because of the administration's diplomatic failures but because of Saddam Hussein's repeated defiance of U.N. demands. That we are doing so without new approval from the United Nations -- a situation that Mr. Daschle foresaw when he voted to give Mr. Bush the authority to act unilaterally -- is the fault primarily of France and Russia, which voted for a resolution that gave Saddam Hussein a "last chance" to disarm and then refused to enforce it.

But being wrong isn't the same as being unpatriotic, as a number of Republicans offensively suggested in response. Their coordinated torrent of criticism does a disservice to the Republican Party and to American values. Mr. Daschle's Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, termed the remarks "irresponsible and counterproductive to the pursuit of freedom." House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois went further, saying the remarks "may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close." Criticizing Mr. Daschle's "second-guessing of our commander in chief on the eve of war," Majority Whip Tom DeLay told Mr. Daschle to shut his mouth, apparently thinking a French translation would make the insult more cutting: "Fermez La Bouche, Monsieur Daschle," his press release was headlined. Responding to the onslaught, Mr. Daschle cited the Roosevelt statement we have reprinted above.

Too many Democrats, such as Mr. Daschle, seem to be positioning themselves to avoid criticism if the war goes well but to say "I told you so" if it doesn't. Such calculation is deserving of criticism -- but it isn't treasonous. Mr. DeLay and his friends would do well to take a break from their studies of French and reflect on the wisdom of Mr. Roosevelt, a Republican president speaking during another time of war.