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Conyers, McDermott Make Plea to U.N.

Two prominent Congressional foes of military action against Saddam Hussein journeyed to New York on Thursday to meet privately with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in an effort to underscore Capitol Hill opposition to the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq.

The visit from Democratic Reps. John Conyers (Mich.) and Jim McDermott (Wash.) occurred as the international body awaited disclosure of new evidence from the Bush administration of the Iraqi dictator’s ongoing efforts to evade inspections and produce weapons of mass destruction.

It also came just two days after President Bush delivered his State of the Union address to Congress, in which he reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to confronting Hussein — with or without support from the United Nations or various other allies — and said Secretary of State Colin Powell would present intelligence data to the U.N. Security Council. Powell is slated to make that presentation today.

In fact, the precise substance of the lawmakers’ discussions with Annan was not immediately clear. But in an interview Tuesday, Conyers said he expressed the view that the United Nations “should bind us all, even when we’re in disagreement,” and suggested the world body was being “devalued” by the Bush administration’s approach on Iraq.

“I wanted Kofi Annan to know that a considerable number of us [on Capitol Hill] think that in going it alone [the United States] may be alienating the same institution that we will need in the future, going forward,” Conyers said.

Conyers said he stressed that the United Nations needs to reassert its “centrality” in world affairs, and described the session as “extremely encouraging.” “The thing that’s encouraging is that [Annan] is probably going to be his own man,” Conyers said.

McDermott did not respond to requests for an interview. A spokeswoman for the Washington lawmaker said she was not familiar with the details of the meeting.

“All I know is that they were talking about Iraq and letting [Annan] know that there are people in Congress opposed to going to war,” McDermott spokeswoman Heather Kersey said.

While it is not at all unusual for Members of Congress to hold private discussions with world leaders, including the U.N. secretary-general, lawmakers typically observe an informal rule that they not explicitly advocate against the U.S. government’s foreign policy on such occasions — the concern being that it might embolden those who wish to undercut U.S. interests.

With respect to Iraq, critics of the Bush administration’s approach, including Conyers and McDermott, have long advocated that the conflict be resolved diplomatically through the United Nations. And by and large, that is the policy that has unfolded at the White House.

In recent weeks, however, a sharp rift has opened over how to respond to what is almost universally considered to be violations of the most recent resolution from the U.N. Security Council demanding that Hussein voluntarily disarm. Conyers and McDermott have opposed using military force to enforce the resolution, and have instead recommended further diplomacy — a view that was evidently reiterated in the meeting Thursday.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who for many years chaired the International Relations Committee, said that criticizing the government’s policies to foreign leaders is not necessarily out of bounds, but added that context is important in such matters.

“I would never take the position that [lawmakers] could not” express disagreement abroad, Hamilton said. “But I could take the position that it might not be wise to do it, or that it might be the wrong time to do it.”

This would be the second time in recent months that McDermott has faced questions about his personal interventions in the Iraq conflict.

The lawmaker journeyed with two other Members — Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) — to Baghdad last September for a visit that was widely decried as a propaganda coup for the Iraqi dictator. In particular, critics cited McDermott’s much-publicized suggestion that Bush might “mislead” the public in order to justify military action in Iraq.

The remark drew a sharp rebuke at the time from then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who responded that McDermott was “totally out of touch with the most fundamental tenet of Congressional responsibilities.”

John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), declined to directly address the Conyers-McDermott mission to New York.

But he said, “The Speaker believes that at times like this it is very important to support the president and the Secretary of State as they work through these difficult issues. It’s important to show a united front.”

The White House has cited its efforts to work with the United Nations and the international community to find a solution on the Iraq matter, but has also stressed the need for military action if diplomacy fails.

“The United States will continue to consult with other nations and the U.N., but the burden to avert war rests solely on Saddam Hussein,” White House spokesman Taylor Griffin said.

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