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US Lawmakers Taking Political Risks In Questioning War Goals - 2002-03-05

US Democratic part congressional leaders are expressing renewed support for the war on terrorism in the wake of the latest American casualties in Afghanistan. However, the Senate's Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, is not backing away from questioning the Bush Administration on its long-term goals in the anti-terror campaign.

Senator Daschle stirred up a controversy last week when he questioned the administration's long term objectives in the war on terrorism. It is a stance he defended on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But we also have to ask the right questions. That is the role of Congress. We are a co-equal branch of government and I don't think we ought to rubber-stamp any president," the Senate Majority Leader said.

Some Republicans accused Senator Daschle of undermining bipartisan support for the war effort. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott worried on "Meet the Press" that too much criticism at home could be misinterpreted by allies and foes abroad. "And any sign that we are losing that unity, or a crack in that support, will be, I think, used against us overseas," Mr. Lott said.

But historians say there are plenty of examples of members of Congress questioning military goals and strategies during wartime. Democrats raised questions during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and Republican Dwight Eisenhower focused on the war in Korea during his first presidential campaign in 1952.

Allan Lichtman is a presidential scholar at the American University here in Washington. "Eisenhower ran a campaign that was 'communism, corruption and Korea', questioning of course quite seriously the leadership of President Harry Truman in the Korean War and pledging that he would go to Korea and try to resolve it," he said.

Opinion polls indicate the public remains very supportive of the war on terrorism and Professor Lichtman says those who do raise questions do so at their own political peril. "So it is a very difficult position to legitimately question the actions of a wartime president without crossing kind of an invisible line in the mind of the public where it begins to discredit your own political standing," he said.

Some analysts also believe the news media is more open to questioning the long-term goals of the administration than was the case in the aftermath of September 11. Geneva Overholser is a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. "Somehow, we as humans inevitably respond this way when our nation is attacked and somehow it takes a certain period of time before we can ask the questions. Now we are asking them," she said.

Despite the questions, Bush Administrations officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are adamant that the worldwide campaign against terrorism must continue to hunt down al-Qaida cells wherever they exist.

"A global war on terrorism must be just that, it must be global to be effective. And we will, with our coalition partners, intensify our efforts to identify and disrupt terrorist network activities wherever they exist in the world," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Professor Lichtman predicts that the public will continue to strongly support the administration in the near term. But he says over time, an open-ended and expanding military campaign could carry risks for the president. "That if, in the long term we seem to be bogged down in a never-ending war without a clear end, with American lives being dribbled away, then he risks real retribution from the American people. But we are talking about a minimum of many months and more likely years before this happens," he said.

In the short-term, however, analysts say that Democrats will run a greater political risk if they are seen as questioning the president's war strategy as part of the run-up to the midterm congressional elections in November.