As the first missiles struck Baghdad last Wednesday, local Democrats were quick to back the troops, but mostly silent on the larger issues posed by the first pre-emptive war in U.S. history. With the clock ticking down on President George W. Bush's 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein to get out of Iraq, only a handful of veterans gathered on City Hall's steps in the late afternoon to air their opposition.
Among them was former city councilman and retired army reservist Vince Ryan, one of the few high-profile Democrats locally to stick out their necks in opposition to the unfolding invasion.
"This is all we can do," Ryan says while admitting that it "might be tilting at windmills." "Pre-emptive war is an unworkable concept. I wish the world was as simple as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and the president think it is, with 'We're the good guys and they're the bad guys.'
"If we think we are the Lone Ranger who knows what the law is and what the future holds, and we don't really care who's riding with us, that's a huge change in what I think is a very complex world."
Another Democrat and former councilman, 25th District Congressman Chris Bell, took the opposite tack days earlier, at an antiwar vigil in Karl Young Park in southwest Houston. Bell backed the impending attack as justifiable to protect national security and eliminate the Iraqi regime's weapons of mass destruction. While he may have won some brownie points with the White House, the message was not what the Democratic crowd had gathered to hear.
Bell's manner as well as the substance of his remarks antagonized several listeners. According to one, he "was just annoying and seemed to be dropping names and shutting off people who tried to ask him questions. I thought we had some old Republican from Arizona talking to us instead of a Democrat."
Dale Napier, chair of the Democratic Anti-War Group, had invited Bell to the vigil and called his decision to attend "courageous." On the other hand, Napier says many were so miffed by Bell's stance that they boycotted a Bell fund-raiser and considered joining the Green Party.
The Harris County Democratic Party steering committee tried to balance support of the military with the antiwar stance of its majority. It passed a brief resolution stating "while we support the men and women in all Branches of the Military the Harris County Democratic party opposes a pre-emptive war against Iraq without the support of the United Nations Security Council."
Harris County Democratic chair Gerald Birnberg says the war situation is so fluid that many officials are waiting to see the results before taking a position. He says the local party's resolution mirrors the stance of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the leading antiwar candidate among prospective Democratic presidential contenders.
"All Democrats sincerely want to be completely supportive of the people in the military," says Birnberg, "but at the same time I sense a grave discomfort with a pre-emptive foreign policy and a deterioration of our international relationships. That's the tension I've seen in the community throughout the last two or three months of time."
The Insider attempted to take an impromptu poll of the top Houston mayoral candidates about the pre-emptive-war strategy but drew responses from only Republican Orlando Sanchez and Democrat Bill White.
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"I think we need to defend ourselves from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, in particular, before they are used against the United States," White said.
If White seemed to be signing on to the Bush quick-draw foreign policy, Sanchez's answer was more of a punt:
"Not having read the announced pre-emptive strike or war policy, I just can't comment on it. I'd have to spend a lot of time at the federal government's Web site, y'know."
Gee, don't strain yourself, guy.