It is often said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  In the case of a number of leading Democratic politicians, however, the place they are going now -- as President Bush makes the tough choice to go to war with Iraq -- is back to their roots in the McGovern wing of their party. 

For weeks now, some prominent Democrats have assailed the President for what they perceive as his mismanagement of international efforts to make this war unnecessary.  For example, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle pointedly told a union audience on Monday: "I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war -- saddened that we have to give up one life because this President couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country."


Mr. Daschle's House counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, warned on February 5th of "the danger of losing the focus of the war on terrorism and the support of the international coalition with which it has been conducted. Any action taken against Iraq must not jeopardize that coalition."

In January, a Georgetown University audience heard Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry declaring that the "Bush Administration's blustering unilateralism is wrong, and even dangerous, for our country.  In practice, it has meant alienating our long-time friends and allies, alarming potential foes and spreading anti-Americanism around the world."  He urged the President to "show the world some appropriate patience in building a genuine coalition....Do not rush to war."

In his inimitable fashion, former President Jimmy Carter took his pacifist advocacy to its logical extreme in an op.ed. article published in the New York Times on March 9:  "Increasingly unilateral and domineering policies have brought international trust in our country to its lowest level in memory.  American stature will surely decline further if we launch a war in clear defiance of the United Nations."

What these critics really seem to be finding fault with is Mr. Bush's refusal to hue to the lowest-common-denominator dictated by the likes of France, Russia, China, Germany and Syria.  Yet to do otherwise would be to grant these or other nations the de facto right to veto actions the President of the United States deems to be in the Nation's vital interest.

Still more extreme positions have been staked out by several other Democratic presidential candidates.  For instance, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean asserted on NBC's "Meet the Press" on March 9 that "going into Iraq has very little to do with protecting the United States of America."  A few days earlier, Gov. Dean even told PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that the war on terror is "being put on the back burner because of this President's obsession with unilateral disarmament of Iraq, which is not a threat to the United States." 

It is predictable that such carping will be toned down, at least temporarily, in the days ahead.  If President Bush and his "coalition of the willing" achieve a decisive and relatively bloodless victory -- demonstrating, in the process, the absurdity of the critics' charges that he is acting unilaterally -- those Democrats who have opposed war with Iraq will hope not to be held accountable for their pre-war stances.

Even now, some (notably, Mrs. Pelosi and the Senate Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin) have started wrapping themselves in the protective coloration of supporters of the men and women in uniform who will shortly be sent into harm's way.  For the time being, claims of solidarity with the troops will obscure persistent opposition to their mission.

It must be asked, however:  Can one really be supportive of our troops while withholding support from their Commander-in-Chief -- the man who is committing them to battle and into whose hands they are entrusting their lives?  The answer is "No."  In fact, those who think this distinction can be made risk seriously undermining the morale of the armed forces at the very moment when every effort should be made to heighten it.

Needless to say, if the war in Iraq goes badly, there will be plenty of opportunity for Democrats (and others) to cavil about the President's folly in trying to liberate Iraq and  disarming Saddam Hussein the old-fashioned -- and only sure -- way: by force of arms.  Should thathappen, though, the President's critics will bear no small measure of the blame.  For any battlefield reverses, humanitarian crises and terrorist attacks we experience will only have been made more likely (and perhaps made possible) thanks to the months Saddam was given to prepare for this conflict
by the McGovern Democrats and others who insisted on subordinating U.S. national security decision-making to the whims of the UN Security Council.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.