WASHINGTON — Breaking bipartisan solidarity on Capitol Hill, Rep. Jim McDermott yesterday criticized the U.S.-led attacks on military targets in Afghanistan, questioning whether President Bush had "thought this action out completely or fully examined America's cause."
The Seattle Democrat issued a two-paragraph statement that suggested Bush and his military advisers reacted too quickly to the Sept. 11 suicide jet attacks against the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The statement was the first public criticism of the retaliatory strikes by a federal lawmaker.
As U.S. and British jets dropped bombs on anti-aircraft batteries, airports and other targets controlled by the ruling Taliban government for a second day, the seven-term Democrat drew a parallel with the 1991 bombardment of Iraq.
"The destruction of the infrastructure did not work in Iraq a decade ago," McDermott said in the statement. "This sounds an awful lot like Iraq. Saddam Hussein is still in power! It is Iraq's citizenry, not Saddam, which continues to suffer the consequences of those air and missile strikes during the Gulf War and the sanctions we subsequently imposed against that nation."
White House officials did not return calls seeking comment. The rest of the state's congressional delegation expressed support for the bombings.
Criticism of a military action during a time of heightened nationalism might come back to haunt most politicians, but McDermott, an outspoken liberal whose district is primarily in the city of Seattle, has one of the safest seats in Congress.
He was overwhelmingly reelected without GOP opposition in 2000. As an indication of how liberal the district is, the Green Party candidate got nearly 20 percent of the vote.
This week's airstrikes drew public support perhaps not seen since World War II for an American military action.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll said 94 percent of Americans supported the strikes against Taliban targets in Afghanistan. The poll of 506 randomly selected adults, interviewed by telephone Sunday night, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
In an interview yesterday, the congressman said he had not received significant public feedback during the Columbus Day holiday and did not consider the public reaction before taking his stand.
"I simply raise the question of whether this is the thing to do," McDermott said.
"To simply say that whatever the president wants to do is right is not to use your own critical faculties. And the people of the 7th District elected me to represent them and to think on their behalf on the basis of what I know."
McDermott, who voted against authorizing then-President Bush to use force in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, last month voted in favor of authorizing the younger Bush to respond to attacks that left nearly 6,000 dead. The only member of Congress to oppose the measure was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
"He's a hypocrite," said Chris Vance, Washington state Republican Party chairman. "I can understand the left standing up against past military actions in Vietnam and Panama and even the Gulf.
"But here, the president is striking back against people who physically attacked America, and even then Jim McDermott doesn't want to use military force."
McDermott was interviewed on KIRO radio yesterday afternoon, prompting what host Dori Monson said was the most immediate negative response he'd experienced on his show.
Monson said sentiment was running 20-1 against the statement. But he noted that several callers who voted for McDermott said they were supporting the congressman.
Hollis Giammatteo, a strong McDermott supporter, said the remarks were exactly what she would expect from the congressman.
"I'm relieved that there's a dissenting voice among the citizenry right now," she said. "Patriotism becomes dangerous when it doesn't allow all points of view." The bombing, said Tim McBeth, who tends to vote Democratic, "is something we need to do. But this country is built on free speech. If McDermott wants to say those things, he should be able to."
McDermott said that he and many other members of Congress considered voting with Lee last month but wanted to support the president and give him a free hand to act.
"In this case, I couldn't bring myself to vote no. He has to have the power to do something, and at that time it wasn't clear what was going on," McDermott said. At the time, he said Bush should act slowly and thoughtfully.
Yesterday, McDermott criticized the speed with which the president acted and his decision to notify only a handful of congressional leaders.
"I miss the point of needing to strike now. He has not made that clear to anybody, either in his public statements or anything I've heard in the Congress," he said.
In his written statement, McDermott took issue with what he perceived as a lack of planning.
"I am not so sure that we have fully developed a comprehensive strategic plan. It has been less than a month since the terrorist attacks against our country. A scant four weeks to plan and implement an operation like this doesn't seem like a very long time to me."
McDermott did not address the differences between the extensive air-defense system and the large number of troops that defended Iraq during the Gulf War and the Taliban's limited military infrastructure.
He cautioned against celebrating too soon any measure of success from the air campaign.
"It smacks of certain arrogance we can ill afford at this crucial juncture in our nation's history," his statement said. "I'm not so sure President Bush, members of his administration or the military have thought this action out completely or fully examined America's cause."
Seattle Times staff reporter John Zebrowski contributed to this report.