WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat and would-be vice president, became his party's "war hawk" this week. In a speech before the New Democratic Network (NDN), an organization that purports to raise money for so-called "centrist" Democrat candidates, Mr. Lieberman called for expanding the two-week-old war against Osama bin Laden, his global al Qaeda terror network and the despotic Taliban regime in Afghanistan that has been harboring them. Senator Lieberman, whose resume as a military strategist includes attending Yale during the Vietnam War, founding an anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats, and serving on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, wants the United States to target Saddam Hussein of Iraq. "As long as Saddam is there, Iraq is not just going to be a thorn in our side, but a threat to our lives," Lieberman told reporters on the margins of the NDN meetings in Washington.
In fairness to Mr. Lieberman, the dove-turned-hawk does have allies in his quest to expand the military's already difficult mission. Some officials in Washington, usually anonymously, have echoed Mr. Lieberman's call to oust the Iraqi dictator and "finish the job that should have been done 10 years ago," as the argument usually goes. Even within the Bush administration, opinions vary as to the breadth and focus of Mr. Bush's war. Some, like Mr. Lieberman, want to take out Saddam Hussein and settle old scores. They believe that Saddam is linked to the September 11 attacks, although the FBI and our emasculated intelligence agencies have yet to prove a connection. Others, who would speak only on background, believe that Saddam's laboratories are implicated in the recent anthrax attacks against U.S. media organizations.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is an evil man and a ruthless, brutal dictator. He has also shown himself, like most despots, to be a man of extraordinary resilience -- a survivor. Without question, Iraq and the Middle East would be better off without him. But the president's decision to move cautiously regarding Saddam is the right one.
Mr. Lieberman's broad military experience apparently does not include the strategy commonly called, "divide and conquer" -- the maxim the administration is following and appropriately so. They have taken great pains to define our action as a "war on terrorism" versus a war on Islam. Meanwhile, President Bush has embraced the Afghan people by dropping food to starving refugees, seeking the support of responsible Muslim leaders and enlisting the help of America's children, asking each to donate one dollar to help Afghan children. This week, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld spoke to Hafiz Mirazi, a reporter with the al Jezeera television network in Qatar, which reaches 40 million people worldwide -- many of them Muslims. "This effort is not against Afghanistan's people," Mr. Rumsfeld said, "it's not against any race or any religion. It is against terrorism, and terrorists, and the senior people that are harboring terrorists."
Osama bin Laden is not the only terrorist in the Middle East. He is but one of thousands. The Taliban in Afghanistan is not the only brutal, repressive, evil regime harboring terrorists. There are many, and Iraq is among them. But to target Iraq now would unnecessarily antagonize an already fragile anti-terror coalition, enflame the passions of anti-American Islamic radicals and further stretch our already thin military capabilities. The commander in chief, now in his ninth month in office, and fighting a war with what's left of our armed forces, has it right: First things first.
Rather than offering military advice on how to prosecute the first war of the 21st century, Mr. Lieberman and his colleagues who are so willing to send others to fight new enemies, ought to contemplate why our military capabilities aren't stronger. Since Mr. Lieberman began his senatorial career, we have cut our Army divisions from 18 to 10. We now have 13 fighter wings, down from 24. Our Navy, which boasted 546 ships, today has only 316. Not only is there less equipment, but it is aging as well. The average Navy aircraft is 17 years old; the average Marine tanker is 25 years old, and the average Marine transport helicopter is 24 years old. Shortfalls also exist in ammunition, precision-guided munitions and personnel. All of this happened during the watch of Joe "The Hawk" Lieberman.
And despite Mr. Lieberman's close connections to the Clinton-Gore administration, he was unwilling or unable to convince his political soul mates to stop doing more with less. Between 1982 and 1990, the Army and Marine Corps participated in 17 deployments. During Mr. Lieberman's tenure, the Army and Marine Corps participated in 149 deployments. Those of us who argued against sending Americans to places like Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti and East Timor because there was no American interest, were called "isolationists" and worse. And now, Mr. Lieberman wants to "take out" Saddam Hussein.
While such a course of action may well prove to be proper at some future point, Mr. Lieberman had better hope that those called upon to carry out such a mission have short memories. He won't want them to recall that way back in
1999, he was one of only eight senators to vote against their pay raise.