Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Libya’s decision to give up its weapons of mass destruction is making it harder for Democrats such as Howard Dean to disparage President Bush’s war against Iraq, which prompted Libya’s move.

Mr. Dean, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been uncharacteristically silent about Mr. Bush’s bombshell announcement on Friday that Libya has agreed unconditionally to relinquish its chemical-, biological- and nuclear-weapons programs.

Although Mr. Bush pointed out that the disarmament offer coincided with the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March, a Dean spokesman yesterday downplayed any causal relationship.

“Look, the agreement with the Libyans is good news and an important step forward in the effort to combat weapons of mass destruction,” conceded Dean spokesman Jay Carson.

“But the agreement is the result of years of diplomacy and sanctions, conducted in concert with the international community, which Governor Dean believes is the most effective means of pursuing that goal,” he added.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi made it clear that his decision to disarm was prompted by Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I will do whatever the Americans want because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid,” Mr. Gadhafi told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, according to a Berlusconi spokesman who was quoted in yesterday’s Telegraph of London.

“I haven’t seen that quote,” Mr. Carson said. “It’s tough for me to respond to something I haven’t seen.”

Mr. Dean has staked his candidacy on the notion that it was wrong to wage war against Iraq, even though Operation Iraqi Freedom was supported by 70 percent of the American public. Support remains nearly that high in the wake of postwar developments, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein and Libya’s decision to disarm.

Although U.S. forces have not found Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — which the president cited as one of the main reasons for deposing Saddam — the decision by Libya to surrender its weapons complicates Mr. Dean’s recent assertions that America is no safer since Saddam’s capture or even since September 11.

“You have Howard Dean saying that our nation and our world are not safer with Saddam Hussein in custody,” said Christine Iverson, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “You have [Senator] Joe Lieberman, who says that our nation and our world are safer.

“I mean, those are radically divergent views on a very central foreign-policy question,” she added. “The Democrats continue to undermine their own position by failing to agree on even the most basic foreign-policy questions.”

Libya’s disarmament also appears to undermine statements by other Democratic hopefuls, including Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Shortly after Saddam was captured last week, Mr. Edwards criticized the president’s policy on weapons of mass destruction.

“This administration’s approach to protecting America from weapons of mass destruction can be summed up simply: Wait until our enemies gather strength, and then use force to stop them,” Mr. Edwards said. “We should be exercising every option we have to stop the spread of deadly weapons before war becomes our only option.”

Mr. Bush said the Libya agreement was made possible by nine months of “quiet diplomacy,” which prompted criticism from Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

“Ironically, this significant advance represents a complete U-turn in the Bush administration’s overall foreign policy,” Mr. Kerry said. “An administration that scorns multilateralism and boasts about a rigid doctrine of military pre-emption has almost in spite of itself demonstrated the enormous potential for improving our national security through diplomacy.

“If the president can put aside his go-it-alone unilateralism to engage with a longtime enemy like Gadhafi, why are the ideologues in this administration so hesitant to negotiate with North Korea to end their nuclear-weapons programs?” he added. “Why not rally the United Nations and NATO to forge a new cooperative effort to combat proliferation around the globe?”

Other Democrats also treated Libya’s disarmament as an opportunity to criticize the president.

“Libya’s certainly good news, but we’ve got a long way to go before we can feel we’ve really made the American people safe in a time of terrorism,” Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said on “Fox News Sunday.” “There are failures that are still bedeviling us on a number of other fronts.

“We’ve got North Korea apparently going ahead and making nuclear weapons,” he added. “And we still don’t have the international help in Iraq that we should have gotten a long time ago.”

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