Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

As Lieberman Runs for President, His Senate Office Focuses on War

March 4, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) may be spending his weekends in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but inside his Senate office, the talk is all about war.

As Lieberman, who is running for president in 2004, prepared for a speech last week on the post-Saddam agenda for Iraq, the phones rang off the hook in the front office.

Two staffers took call after call from opponents of a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq, part of the Virtual March on Washington organized for Feb. 26 by the Win Without War Coalition.

By the end of the day, about 1,000 anti-war calls were logged

But inside Lieberman’s inner Senate office, with a mezuzah affixed to its door, Lieberman remains one of the staunchest supporters in the Democratic Party of U.S. military action against Iraq, even suggesting that the United States should act without the aid of its allies if necessary.

“The United States always has to reserve the right, if it feels its security requires it, to take unilateral action against a country or group that threatens it security,” Lieberman told JTA in a wide-ranging interview.

Lieberman is confident that if the United States chooses to go to war with Iraq, international partners that now are putting up a fight will acquiesce, citing the threat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses to the rest of the world.

“If we leave them with those chemical and biological weapons which almost everyone, including the French and the Germans, agree they have, before long they will be used against us or our allies in the region,” he said, citing both America’s Arab friends and Israel.

After Saddam is gone the United States and its allies with have a “moment of enormous opportunity” to make Iraq a model in the Arab world, as well as to place pressure on Iran and Syria to reject terrorism, Lieberman says.

But while he agrees with Bush on plans for Iraq, Lieberman repeatedly described the president’s foreign policy as “arrogant,” and said it could alienate America from the rest of the world.

“I think it’s very important for the president to clearly spell out our vision of a post-Saddam Iraq as a way to get beyond both the alienation and the suspicions of what our motives are,” he said.

Bush chose the evening of Feb. 26, just hours after Lieberman’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, to announce his vision of the Middle East after Saddam has been swept from power.

Lieberman learned of the confluence of speeches only the night before, when a staffer saw an item announcing Bush’s speech on The Washington Post’s Web site. But the Lieberman camp quickly spun the story, arguing that “Lieberman leads, Bush follows.”

The two speeches shared similar themes — calling for instillation of democracy in Iraq, enhanced security and an increase in engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Lieberman’s camp says its candidate’s speech was more detailed.

Lieberman has been pushing for greater U.S. effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claiming that Bush has done little since his landmark June 24 speech calling for a change in the Palestinian regime, extensive reforms in the Palestinian Authority — and, afterward, a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

“The problem with the administration in the Middle East is that it issued a policy but didn’t try to do anything to implement it,” Lieberman said. “That’s the mistake.”

Lieberman wants a high-level U.S. emissary on the ground to implement White House policy, starting with 100 percent effort by the Palestinians to prevent terrorism against. Such effort, he said, would lead to reciprocal actions by Israel.

Lieberman also is uncomfortable that the Bush administration hopes to resume working after an Iraq war with its “Quartet” partners — the United Nations, European Union and Russia — on a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We are trying to bring Israelis and the Palestinians to a better place,” he said. “The only country that has the trust of both sides to do that is the United States.”

Lieberman is seeking the Democratic nomination for president at a time when global anti-Semitism is on the rise. While he experienced little bigotry on the campaign trail as the first Jewish vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket in 2000, the world is a very different place just two years later.

But Lieberman says he is confident that, if elected, the world will accept him, largely because of the power and influence the U.S. president holds, regardless of his religion.

“I think the question the world will ask is not what the religions of the candidates of 2004 are, but what are their policies,” he said.

Lieberman also is counting on his belief that American voters will not choose their leader based on religion.

“I have too much confidence in the common sense, let alone the fairness of the American people, to think, particularly in these difficult times, that they are going to decide who they want their leader to be based on his faith or race or nationality or gender,” he said. “They’re going to decide based on who they think can best lead the country forward.”

Lieberman and his family won a place in many Democrats’ hearts in 2000, when he ran as Al Gore’s vice presidential candidate. Mementos from that run line the walls of his office, including a picture of his infamous appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” when he sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

But Lieberman is on his own this time. He is considered one of the most hawkish and conservative of the nine experienced Democratic candidates who plan to run in the Democratic primaries.

While he may have one of the better chances of any Democrat to defeat President Bush, winning the Democratic nomination is likely to be the biggest challenge.

“I’m gonna be me,” Lieberman says almost defiantly. “I’ve come too far to try to alter anything about what I believe is in the best interest of our country.”

The Connecticut senator says he has received a warm reception from voters across the Democratic spectrum.

Lieberman notes that the Jewish community will be “the natural place to start” for fund raising, but he half jokes that many Democratic contenders for president — and an increasing number of Republicans — probably feel the same way.

“I’ve felt a lot of pride and excitement in the Jewish-American community and a lot of support,” he said. “But obviously, I have been touched and encouraged by the excitement and pride and support I’ve received from a lot of other people in the country.”

Being an observant Jew wouldn’t prevent him from fulfilling his duties if he elected president, Lieberman says. While he does not campaign on the Sabbath, when necessary he has worked in Congress on Shabbat, arguing that working on behalf of others is part of the duties of his religion.

He likens himself to the many doctors he’s seen who respond to emergency pages from patients even when at synagogue.

“I have always made a distinction between being involved in politics on the Sabbath and fulfilling a governmental responsibility,” he said. “If faith, history and your own hard work puts you in a position where a lot of God’s creations are depending on your leadership to protect their safety, their health, their well-being, then it seems to me that has to come first.”

Recommended from JTA