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Thursday, October 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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After outrage over his Iraq visit, McDermott makes small retreat

Seattle Times staff reporters

WASHINGTON — Despite tough talk via satellite from Iraq, Rep. Jim McDermott took a step back yesterday from his accusation that President Bush would mislead the country to build support for an invasion of Iraq.

"I perhaps overstated my case," the Seattle Democrat said when pressed at a Capitol Hill news conference. "The question still remains: When has the president proved to us that we should commit our troops to war?"

Little question remains, though, among Democratic and Republican congressional leaders: House leaders yesterday reached a compromise with the White House on a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq — the very thing McDermott was trying to stop.

And outside of Congress, even some who agree with McDermott on Iraq said he mishandled his role as critic by saying the wrong things in the wrong place.

McDermott's limited retreat came less than 24 hours after he returned to Washington from a weekend trip to Baghdad and Basra. He and two other Democratic congressmen wanted to see the effects of United Nations sanctions on the Iraqi people.

Their trip dominated news coverage of the Iraq debate after McDermott questioned the president's veracity from what could be the center of the conflict. "I think the president would mislead the American people," he had said in an interview from Baghdad on Sunday.

Republicans and some Democrats thought the move was inappropriate, wrong and perhaps treasonous.

"Jim McDermott's remarks in Iraq are unconscionable, unpatriotic and un-American," Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said at a news conference yesterday with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois. Johnson is an Air Force veteran and spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

McDermott said yesterday his comments weren't intended to mean that he trusted Saddam more than Bush. "I don't trust Saddam Hussein under any circumstances," he said. "There is every bit of evidence not to."

But the damage was done.

"The trip raised a lot of controversy," said Ivan Eland, director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in D.C. "I think he's right on the issue. But I'm not sure he should have said it when he was in Iraq."

Eland is the author of the "Top 10 Reasons Not to 'Do' Iraq," which McDermott handed out at his news conference yesterday.

Even a Seattle pacifist thinks McDermott went too far.

"To speak the truth, in your opinion, is fine wherever you are," said Jean Buskin, a spokeswoman for a newly formed Seattle peace group, Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War (SNOW).

"I think it may have been a mistake to talk about motivations because how do we know the president's motivations?" Buskin asked. "Particularly for a public official to question motivations may have not been a good thing."

Still, Buskin said McDermott's trip might help the cause of peace because it "humanizes everyone on both sides."

"Just the idea of seeing someone from here meeting with officials there, just knowing that there are human beings there and not just one evil dictator — I hope that helps," she said.

The peace group announced yesterday it was awarding McDermott a "Giraffe Award" because he was willing to stick his "neck out and stand tall for peace."

Yesterday, McDermott made it clear he is not anti-war, just anti this war — at this time.

"I am not a pacifist," McDermott said, as he has said in the past. "I am not somebody who won't go to war or who doesn't believe that war should happen. But I don't want it to happen."

He said he just wants to make sure the White House gives weapons inspectors a chance to work in Iraq.

Eland said it is clear McDermott knows he went too far.

"The fact that he is saying, 'I am not a pacifist,' is sort of an indication that he's got to dig himself out of this," he said.

As McDermott and Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., held a news conference about their trip, House leaders announced a compromise resolution authorizing the use of force — "diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must," said Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.

"Members are trying to deal with this in the right way," he added. "We've got to keep this out of politics."

The House is expected to take up the resolution next week. The measure was introduced in the Senate in hopes of convincing Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to follow suit.

McDermott has long been outspoken in his opposition to war. He criticized the initial attack on Afghanistan after Sept. 11, saying it was poorly planned. He initially voted against the Gulf War, too.

He also made headlines for his role in leaking a tape of a 1996 teleconference among House Republican leaders. After saying he knew nothing about the tape, McDermott admitted earlier this year that he was the one who leaked it to reporters.

He is being sued by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who claims McDermott invaded his privacy by providing the media with the cellphone call involving former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

University of Washington political-science professor Bryan Jones says McDermott is a gadfly who doesn't have much respect in Congress. But in his case he's glad McDermott said what he said.

"But because he is perceived as such a flake he doesn't get the credibility that his position might warrant," Jones said. "He is saying something important here, which is 'Are you willing to take civilian casualties in Iraq?' "

Jones, however, finds it refreshing that McDermott is willing to take some heat.

"Normally I don't have much patience with McDermott to be honest with you. But in this case I've got more because there are a lot of people out there with lots of questions."

And history may prove McDermott right, Jones said.

Similar to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964 that opened the way for burgeoning war in Vietnam, he said, many may come to have second thoughts about the Iraq resolution.

"We're going to regret that and McDermott gets to say, 'I told you so.' "

Yesterday, Bonior and McDermott defended themselves against criticism by touting their records as Vietnam-era veterans. McDermott was a Navy psychiatrist and Bonior was a cook. Both served in California during the war.

McDermott often says he felt obligated to get into politics because Vietnam changed his life. He reflects on the soldiers he treated, whom he compares to the young men depicted in the movie "Apocalypse Now."

"We did our part," McDermott said. "Nobody is going to accuse us of being traitors to our country. A democracy is based on dissent and asking the right questions."

Katherine Pfleger: 206-464-2772 and kpfleger@seattletimes.com. David Postman: 360-943-9882 and dpostman@seattletimes.com.

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