Engel Leans Towards President
War is inevitable, predicted Congressman Eliot Engel, unless Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein acts fast over the next weeks to cooperate with the United Nations and its demands. And the chances of that are "next to nil," Engel said, leaving the United States little choice but to invade the Middle East nation.
"There may be no other option," Engel said, in a phone interview from Washington on Sept. 26. "I'd rather see if there are other viable options, but I won't say there should be no military force."
President George Bush invited the congressman and about 20 of his Democratic colleagues to the White House two weeks ago, after which Engel said he was pleased to hear the president say that military force should be a last resort, not a first. The United Nations, along with the United States and its allies, he said, must continue to push Hussein to comply with the four U.N. resolutions from 1991 and 1994 that require Iraq to disarm, cease threatening its neighbors and stop repressing its own civilian population.
But the United States cannot wait forever to act, said Engel, a Democrat from Riverdale who also represents Norwood and Bedford Park. It's been three years since U.N. weapons inspectors were last allowed in Iraq, and since then, Engel believes, Hussein has no doubt stepped up his biological and chemical weapons program. "We can't let it go on for another year," Engel said. "The United States has to be proactive. The old deterrence and containment policies are no longer working."
In mid-September, the president passed around a draft of his joint resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. That first draft was too broad in its scope, giving the president too much leeway to act without Congressional oversight, Engel said.
But while the first draft would have failed to get a "yes" vote from him, the congressman is now tilting towards supporting this latest version of the resolution, drafted since the White House meeting. Originally, the resolution would have granted the president power to address the "regional security problem"; now his powers are limited to Iraq only.
A vote is expected to take place in the House today, Oct. 10, after 20 hours of scheduled debate. The new version could be less likely to alienate U.S. allies, making it more appealing to the congressman, though there are still some amendments up for debate that could change his vote.
"There will be a resolution in Congress that I think will pass," Engel said. "I hope it is narrow enough for me to vote for."
The timing of the resolution, issued just weeks away from the November elections, has aroused suspicions among Democrats, who have suggested the move is motivated by partisan politics to benefit Republican candidates. There are a lot of raised eyebrows among his colleagues, Engel said, and the cloakroom at the House of Representatives is abuzz with questions such as "why not six months from now?" or "why not six months ago?"
But the congressman does not expect his vote to cause any fallout in his campaign against Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, a Republican, on Nov. 5.
"There will be people unhappy with me no matter what I do," Engel said. "Ultimately you have to vote yes or no. I stand by my votes, as I have done for 14 years."
Engel voted in favor of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But this situation, he points out, is less tangible, making the vote that much more challenging. A decade ago, Iraq was invading another nation; this time the United States is engaged in a more murky "global war on terrorism."
"It was simpler for me in '91, and it was easier to gather a coalition," Engel said.
Engel said he is also not convinced that Iraq should be our No. 1 target, which he thinks should be the biggest supporter of terrorism. On that scale, he suggests, Syria and Iran have a worse track record. "I'm pretty well-read on these sorts of things," said Engel, who sits on the House Committee on International Relations. "Why not them? That I can't tell you. But it boils down to one thing: the president is the president. I didn't vote for him, but he makes these decisions and the Congress has to act accordingly."
"Maybe this finishes what his father didn't, or maybe this avenges the assassination attempt on his father," Engel added. "I don't know."
Should the United States attack, one of its primary concerns should be for the security of Israel, Engel said, making the first prong of attack on missiles within range of the Jewish state. And, unlike U.S. strategy in 1991 when Israel was pressured not to retaliate, Engel has urged Secretary of State Colin Powell in person to allow Israel to defend itself as any other nation would.
"It can best be summed up by saying Saddam Hussein is a menace," Engel said. "He is a threat to the stability of the region and to our security. I'm not a hawk, but I am an internationalist, and I do think the United States has a responsibility."
Ed. note: Because Norwood News editor Jordan Moss is a member of Bronx Action for Justice and Peace, which opposes U.S. military action in Iraq, this article was assigned to Pam Frederick, a free-lance reporter who is former managing editor of The Riverdale Press.
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