Lincoln Chafee used to shoe horses — literally.
I never knew the term, farrier, until I walked into the then Rhode Island Senator’s office one day and saw a framed assortment of farrier licenses with the thin, scraggly-looking, long-haired picture of the would-be Senator Chafee on each. There must have been ten or so years of pictures of Chafee the farrier — so he must have been very good at what he did.
Chafee, despite a distinguished political lineage to draw from, made himself a regular guy with views grounded in a blacksmith’s common sense. He has been articulating an approach for US policy towards the Middle East, towards international institutions, and towards our problems in North Korea that are not convoluted or crafted 30,000 feet above normal Americans. My hunch is that Chafee probably thinks that there are a few different ways to shoe a horse — and there ought to be more to thinking about war and peace than just going to war or staying home.
For the few years I have been closely following Lincoln Chafee’s views, he has presciently outlined the general contours of where America may be tilting, more today by accident and desperation for new options than by design — but still in a slightly more positive direction.
We seem to have a new equilibrium of interests that has snapped together around the North Korea nuclear problem. John Bolton is now out of the United Nations criticizing President Bush and his team rather than undermining the UN from inside. And while it is too soon to over-invest in the news that American officials will sit in the same room as Iranian and Syrian officials in a Baghdad-hosted “neighborhood gathering” next month, it’s a possible start in a new direction.
Lincoln Chafee has been speaking about more informed policy options and new efforts at deal-making for a long time. He’s not satisfied with yes-no, binary choices that we often convince ourselves are our only choices.
Today, in the New York Times, Chafee writes about the fact that before the Iraq War Resolution was voted on, the Senate had a choice other than the binary one handed to it. He writes:
A mere 10 hours before the roll was called on the administration-backed Iraq war resolution, the Senate had an opportunity to prevent the current catastrophe in Iraq and to salvage the United States’ international standing. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, offered a substitute to the war resolution, the Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act of 2002.
Senator Levin’s amendment called for United Nations approval before force could be authorized. It was unambiguous and compatible with international law. Acutely cognizant of the dangers of the time, and the reality that diplomatic options could at some point be exhausted, Senator Levin wrote an amendment that was nimble: it affirmed that Congress would stand at the ready to reconsider the use of force if, in the judgment of the president, a United Nations resolution was not “promptly adopted” or enforced. Ceding no rights or sovereignty to an international body, the amendment explicitly avowed America’s right to defend itself if threatened.
An opponent of the Levin amendment said that the debate was not over objectives, but tactics. And he was right. To a senator, we all had as our objectives the safety of American citizens, the security of our country and the disarming of Saddam Hussein in compliance with United Nations resolutions. But there was a steadfast core of us who believed that the tactics should be diplomacy and multilateralism, not the “go it alone” approach of the Bush doctrine.
Those of us who supported the Levin amendment argued against a rush to war. We asserted that the Iraqi regime, though undeniably heinous, did not constitute an imminent threat to United States security, and that our campaign to renew weapons inspections in Iraq — whether by force or diplomacy — would succeed only if we enlisted a broad coalition that included Arab states.
We also urged our colleagues to take seriously the admonitions of our allies in the region — Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. As King Abdullah of Jordan warned, “A miscalculation in Iraq would throw the whole area into turmoil.”
Unfortunately, these arguments fell on deaf ears in that emotionally charged, hawkish, post-9/11 moment, less than four weeks before a midterm election. The Levin amendment was defeated by a 75 to 24 vote. Later that night, the Iraq War Resolution was approved, 77 to 23. It was clear that most senators were immune to persuasion because the two votes were almost mirror images of each other — no to the Levin amendment, aye to war. Their minds were made up.
In order to get the future right, we need to remember our history squarely — the constructive and the destructive initiatives that Washington has produced.
Chafee suggests that whether Members of Congress voted for the Iraq War Resolution are not is not as significant as whether they voted for an alternative option that would have slowed the march to war and that would have attempted to further secure legitimacy from the international community for what we were planning to unleash against Iraq.
Americans are gravely concerned about Iraq, and yearn for leadership to stabilize the situation there and gradually end United States involvement. Calling on presidential hopefuls to justify or recant their vote authorizing the president to take us to war almost misses the point.
The Senate had the opportunity to support a more deliberate, multilateral approach, one that still would have empowered the United States to respond to any imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein. We must not sidestep the fact that a sensible alternative did exist, but it was rejected. Candidates — Democrat and Republican — should be called to account for their vote on the Levin amendment.
I couldn’t agree with the Senator more, but I’ll go one step further.
While I think that benchmarking Senate positions on the Levin initiative makes sense, I think that as we see efforts to deauthorize the war or reframe our military engagement in the region through legislative entrenpreneurship, there will be key votes ahead on everything from potential engagement or conflict with Iran and Syria and provisions related to the Israel-Palestine negotiations.
These will need sensible third option possibilities as well — something more that appeasement or war, something more than zero sum games between one side in a conflict and another.
I have learned that Lincoln Chafee is treating his students to a debate today up at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. The contenders will by my New America Foundation colleague Daniel Levy, who was the lead Israeli drafter of the well-known Geneva Initiative, and neoconservative Middle East specialist Meyrav Wurmser.
I’d be interested to learn whether proposals other than bleak, binary choices emerge out of this Middle East issues session.
– Steve Clemons