SAN FRANCISCO — The conventional wisdom in Washington is that it’s pointless or reckless for Americans to speak with Iraqi officials. But some on Capitol Hill are beginning to think otherwise.
Last month, for the first time since George W. Bush became president, members of Congress — four Democrats — visited Baghdad. Hopefully, more will be making the journey later this fall.
Rep. Nick Rahall, a 13-term congressman from West Virginia, started the trend in mid-September when he joined former Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota to lead a small delegation of Americans to Baghdad. As a member of that group, I was impressed with the candor of the discussions during several hours of meetings with high-level Iraqi government ministers.
The White House was initially low-key about our trip. But when three more congressmen announced they were heading off to visit Iraq last week, the White House press secretary swung into action. Eager to throw cold water, Ari Fleischer claimed that Mr. Rahall’s visit “did not turn out to be as he hoped it would because of the rough treatment he got from the Iraqis, their refusal to listen to him, to meet with him, to talk with him.”
Actually, during face-to-face discussions with “the Iraqis” in Baghdad, there was plenty of listening, meeting and talking. As Mr. Rahall noted in an interview in The Hill Sept. 25, he repeatedly urged Iraqi officials “to accept unconditional and unfettered access to U.N. weapons inspectors.”
And, what’s more, Mr. Rahall said, “they did not reject my suggestions. Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister with whom I met for over two hours, said, ‘We will give it careful consideration, we will consult with our friends and allies, and I will consult with our leadership.'”
Some prominent Republicans are now anxious to dampen prospects for future U.S.-Iraq dialogues involving members of Congress. On Sunday, when Democratic delegation members Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington and Rep. David Bonior of Michigan appeared on ABC’s This Week from Baghdad, a senator on the program went after Mr. McDermott with rhetorical guns blazing.
“Basically, he’s taking Saddam Hussein’s line,” said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the GOP’s assistant leader in the Senate. Mr. Nickles added that Mr. McDermott and Mr. Bonior “sound somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government.”
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi called Mr. McDermott “irresponsible” and proclaimed: “He needs to come home and keep his mouth shut.”
But Mr. McDermott’s retort was on target Monday during a CNN interview from Baghdad: “What I would suggest [Mr. Lott] do is get on a Royal Jordanian airplane and fly over here and take a look. He is talking from absolute ignorance of what’s going on, on the ground. And I think he ought to be a little more careful about what he says in a country where we value free speech.”
The current smears and denunciations from Republican leaders indicate how threatening it can be when members of Congress won’t defer to the White House on matters of international discourse.
Generally, lawmakers excel at functioning as rubber stamps or feeble dissenters when a president puts war at the top of the national agenda. But senators and representatives should move beyond their customary roles in order to breathe life into democratic processes and hold open the possibility of peace.
While President Bush continues to insist that his administration has nothing to discuss with the Iraqi regime, dialogue could prove to be crucial.
Edward L. Peck, a former U.S. chief of mission to Iraq, recently pointed out: “Our government is constantly saying that there must be discussions between parties in disagreement, to avoid or at least reduce the risk of war: India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. So why don’t we talk to Iraq?”
As it happened, two days after our delegation met with Mr. Aziz and Iraqi National Assembly Speaker Sadoun Hammadi on Sept. 14, the United Nations announced that Iraq had agreed to allow unrestricted access for U.N. weapons inspectors. That was a highly positive step that could lead to full inspections and effective disarmament in Iraq.
“It seems to me that if we are going to deal with this in a real and honest way, we have got to create dialogue,” Mr. Bonior said during his visit to Baghdad. Unless war is their goal, elected officials in Washington should find ways to conduct more dialogue with Iraq in the very near future.
Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, which sponsored the U.S. delegation visit to Baghdad in mid-September.