God, what a waste of time

Watching hours of debate in the U.S. Senate about the war in Iraq was akin to listening to canned political speeches at a county fair — tiresomely repetitive and a little pathetic.

A few weeks ago, many Senate Republicans were unsure about what to do in Iraq, worried about increasing violence and the weakness of Iraqi leaders. Now, after relentless prodding from the White House, they’ve all climbed on board the administration’s rhetorical bandwagon _ no “cutting and running.” More people must die in Iraq to justify those killed already. Turning Iraq over to the Iraqis now would be tantamount to surrender, according to Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

“Withdrawal is not an option. Surrender is not a solution,” he said on the Senate floor.

Democrats are not united and keep changing. Now comes a former supporter of the war, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to say it’s time to set a timetable for withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq (by July of 2007, except for those soldiers training Iraqis). The former standard bearer for his party mustered 13 votes for his position and not one was from a Republican.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., came up with a perfect waffle _ a non-binding sense of the Senate resolution that it’s time to start withdrawing some U.S. troops at the end of the year but with no set timetable for ending the war. They got 39 votes.

It’s all because control of the Senate is up for grabs in November (Democrats would have to win six more seats to wrest the Senate from Republicans), and the American people are confused about what to do in Iraq. Unease over President Bush’s open-ended commitment in Iraq is spreading, but his vision of a free, democratic Iraq without terrorists is also appealing. Some think it’s realistic; others don’t.

At first, many Republicans thought it was time to start talking about drawing down U.S. forces. But in the White House, Karl Rove decided that kind of talk had to be squelched. Many hours of arm-twisting later, GOP legislative leaders are back following the president’s script. It’s called staying the course _ keeping American soldiers in Iraq keeps the war on terror away from U.S. shores and keeps Americans safer.

Many Democrats don’t buy that argument because Iraq had no al Qaeda ties before the war and no weapons of mass destruction stockpiled. But they also don’t want to appear to voters to be “weak.” So, like Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., they say they don’t like the way Bush has handled the aftermath of war in Iraq. But they don’t have any real solutions to the mess there except to warn that the U.S. military should not stay in Iraq forever.

Some are puzzled by Bush’s argument that a preemptive war in Iraq was a good thing in 2003, but a preemptive strike against North Korea _ who said to be contemplating the test-launch of a missile that could hit the United States _ is not a good thing in 2006. Forcibly getting rid of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who persecuted hundreds of thousands, was a good thing. Forcibly getting rid of the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, who has starved millions of his fellow North Koreans, is not a good thing even if it were feasible.

The United States was surprised that secretive North Korea’s nuclear program is as advanced as it apparently is; U.S. intelligence about Iraqi weapons was equally as faulty. In any case, top U.S. officials concede they have no idea what North Korea’s intentions are, but that they intend to proceed with diplomacy unless there is a missile test. There is little optimism that billions of U.S. dollars spent in research on a missile defense system had produced a workable defense.

So far the Senate has not had a full-fledged debate on North Korea, although individual senators have urged China to get more involved in the effort to dissuade Kim Jong Il from testing a long-range missile.

But as the inconclusive days of debate on Iraq showed, such a debate on North Korea wouldn’t mean much. The politically polarized Senate would just rubberstamp the administration’s position while Democrats bashed Bush.

All the uncertainty is costly. But about cost, there is little debate. This country will spend a large amount of money on defense for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 _ $518 billion, up $120 billion from three years earlier. What many people don’t realize is that the defense budget does not include spending for Iraq, which now totals more than $290 billion.

Whether it is being spent wisely is a debate for another day, but whether that debate takes place may depend on what happens in November.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)