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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

GOP hypocrisy in attacks upon Daschle

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- From March 24,1999, until June 10,1999, the United States and NATO waged a military campaign to save ethnic Albanians in Kosovo from Serbian oppression.

On May 4, 1999 -- while American troops were engaged in combat -- two Republican congressional leaders publicly criticized the Democratic president and his policy:

Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi: "As a matter of fact, you know, I had doubts about the bombing campaign from the beginning. I didn't think we had done enough in the diplomatic area."

Then House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas: "(In the Balkans) we have a (U.S.) president I don't trust who has proven my reason for not trusting him, had no plan."

Compare these please to the following.

On March 17, 2003 -- after it became apparent that the United States had been able to win only four of the 15 votes on the U.N. Security Council and before the president would tell the nation that the United States would almost certainly, in two days, initiate military action against Iraq -- Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, publicly criticized the Republican president and his policy: "I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're forced to war, saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort so critical for our country."

It is true that generally "war represents a failure of diplomacy." And even though Daschle -- unlike DeLay and Lott -- delivered his criticisms before the first shot was fired and before American troops were in combat, a clear plurality of all Washington GOP politicians in shoe-leather launched a blistering press attack on the South Dakota Democrat.

Tom DeLay (who should know one when he sees one) asked, "Is Tom Daschle the official Democrat hatchet-man or just a taxpayer-funded pundit?" House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, a man of personal and verbal restraint, went nuclear, charging that Daschle's comments "may not undermine the president as he leads us into war and they may not comfort our adversaries, but they come mighty close."

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, reflecting the GOP's continuing Francophobia, added, "Sen. Daschle clearly articulated the French position."

Of course, dissent is not disloyalty, and of course, Tom Daschle -- who spent from 1969 through 1972 in uniform as an Air Force intelligence officer -- personally has more active-duty military experience than DeLay, Hastert and Lott, to say nothing of Vice President Dick Cheney, combined. At a time when three out of four college graduates served in the military, this quartet of red-white-and-blue patriots figured out how to game the system and qualify for deferments to skip the burden of defending the nation they so obviously love.

Interestingly, Tom Daschle could have qualified for a draft deferment because he was married when he graduated from South Dakota State University in 1969. He chose instead to honor his commitment to serve. He has explained the intense rivalry between his alma mater and the University of South Dakota this way: "We're a lot like Harvard and Yale, except we have a better school of animal husbandry."

He explained his decision: "I just viewed my time in the service as giving back to your country, something I needed to do just as my father had done before me." In Ed Pokorny of Texas and Fred Marr of Idaho, Tom Daschle has a gift his critics will never know -- lifetime friendships forged from shared military service.

Daschle, who was not sent to Southeast Asia, remembers, "A lot of the people I served with went to Vietnam, and some did not come home." He continues to visit the Vietnam memorial, seeks out the names on the wall and admits "that hole in your heart and your memory is always there" -- and so, too, are "the tears."

Let us not forget: Debate and dissent are the very oxygen of democracy. This nation was founded not by conformists or the complacent, but by dissenters who had the courage to defend their beliefs and their homeland -- which sounds a lot more like Tom Daschle than his critics.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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