The more Bonior and McDermott talked, the less Thompson was seen or heard. In an interview after returning home, Thompson explained his reticence. He defended the right of Bonior and McDermott to speak out in a way that underscored the precise problem with their approach. "That's the beauty of living of living in a country where George Bush is President and Saddam Hussein is not President," Thompson said. "Here, you can say anything you want without being shot."
My free translation: Even if you dislike Bush's policies, remember who the dictator is. Hint: It is not Bush.
Bonior, of Michigan, had a point when he told reporters that he and McDermott "both served our country in the service and a lot of the people who are criticizing us never were there when their country needed them." Thompson is a vet, too.
But the issue is judgment. Don't these guys remember that nothing hurt the antiwar movement more during the Vietnam years than the open identification of some in its ranks with America's enemies? Those who paraded in the streets with Viet Cong flags, burned American ones, or went to Hanoi won Richard Nixon more friends than he ever could on his own.
Bonior and McDermott are no flag-burners, we are not at war yet, and they wisely backpedaled when they got home. "Saddam Husein's not a nice person, I'm not carrying any brief for him," McDermott told The Early Show on CBS.
Glad to hear it, but he could have made that point more forcefully by focusing on Saddam's sins during his Iraq visit. After all, liberals should be among those most outraged by Saddam's human-rights abuses, his aggression and his gassing of his own people. How about a division of labor: Criticize Saddam while you're on his soil, and argue with Bush when you get home?
Alternatively, just deliver the message you intended to send and skip the news conferences. That's what Thompson did: "My message to the officials was: If they want to prevent a war, they need to prevail upon Saddam Hussein to provide unrestricted, unfettered access to the weapons inspectors."
Lord knows, anyone with the gumption to dissent these days deserves some kudos for courage. But Bonior and McDermott didn't advance their cause. They set it back. Already, Republicans are speculating that their Iraqi jaunt put pressure on House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt to reach an early agreement with Bush on a war resolution.
By signing on with Bush, Gephardt undercut efforts by senators such as Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, both Republicans, to push for a resolution that would stress the need for international cooperation and give Bush less unfettered power.
Hagel, also a Vietnam veteran, said of the traveling congressmen: "I don't have a problem with a member of Congress actually going somewhere and talking to a lot of people. But there's no question that some of the comments that came out of there were inappropriate."
There are plenty of criticisms to level at Bush's approach. Hagel, for one, fears the impact of unilateral action on international order and thinks the United States will need international help in rebuilding Iraq if war comes. "I don't think the United States has thought near enough about the day after, and the day after that," Hagel says.
By grandstanding in Iraq, Bonior and McDermott drew attention away from such questions - and toward themselves. They could learn a lesson or two from Mike Thompson.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is email@example.com.