The beat of Persian Gulf war drums has suddenly become very loud. Reiterating that Saddam Hussein is another Hitler, the Administration is now hinting that the mistreatment of U.S. hostages in Iraq and Kuwait will be used as a pretext for war.
The United States is again sliding inexorably into a war the Congress has not sanctioned. Since 1945, American Presidents have committed U.S. troops to two major wars (Korea and Vietnam) and a host of lesser conflicts (most recently Panama, Grenada and Lebanon) without asking Congress to declare war. Dusting off the imperial presidency's supposed prerogatives, the Bush Administration has categorically refused to promise that it will seek congressional authorization before initiating hostilities against Iraq. Congress should act now --before it is too late--and prohibit the use of U.S. forces in offensive actions against Iraq unless Congress expressly approves.
By making the President commander in chief while reserving to Congress the power to declare war and ratify treaties, the Framers issued--in constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin's oft-quoted observation--an invitation for the two branches to struggle for supremacy in conducting foreign policy. Nevertheless, until the end of World War II, it was clearly understood that a President could not commit U.S. forces to a major conflict without the consent of Congress.
The Cold War's exigencies upset the delicate constitutional balance. To meet the perceived communist threat in a world that was viewed as bipolar both geopolitically and ideologically, the United States became a national security state--permanently mobilized for war in order to contain communism worldwide. Executive-branch authority increased dramatically while congressional power eroded (and, to a large degree, was abdicated voluntarily). In a nuclear world, it was said, the President needed a free hand to respond quickly to global crises.
In the Persian Gulf crisis, however, there are no compelling arguments for allowing the Administration to start a war without first obtaining congressional consent. Americans and their elected representatives have the time to debate Washington's Persian Gulf policy, a debate too important to be left to street demonstrations staged by aging 1960s radicals. The Persian Gulf crisis is not a Cold War superpower confrontation with all the possibilities of sudden escalation to the nuclear level that such a clash could entail. There is no imminent danger to America's territorial integrity, to its physical and economic security or even to the global balance of power. Thus, none of the conditions cited during the Cold War as support for unconstrained presidential authority to use the military apply in this case. This crisis has dragged on more than three months, and there is time to reflect before making the fateful decision for war in the gulf, a conflict that may not end quickly and will assuredly cost many American lives.
A sober assessment of U.S. policy objectives in the gulf is needed. Will vanquishing Iraq really bring stability to that perennially volatile region? Will the anti-Iraq coalition hold together if the United States strikes Iraq first? What impact will an American-initiated war have on moderate Arab governments--and on Arab populations? How will Washington's policy affect U.S.-Israeli relations?
Beyond the issues pertinent to the immediate crisis, Bush's whole notion of a "new world order" needs to be scrutinized. In the post-Cold War era, it is far from clear that America must remain the world's policeman, or that it can afford to do so. In this sense, the Persian Gulf crisis provides the opportunity for a new, full-scale "Great Debate" about America's purposes and world role.
Wars are easy to start but often difficult to end. Thus the hard questions--the nature of America's security interests, the feasibility of Washington's objectives and the relationship of military means to policy ends must be asked before the shooting starts.
In its historic 1966 hearings, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the right questions about U.S. policy in Vietnam. But it was too late to halt the march of folly in Southeast Asia, because vast numbers of American troops had already been committed to combat. Congress should not make that mistake again. Morally and constitutionally, it is time for Congress to assert its foreign-policy prerogatives--especially the power to declare war--in the Persian Gulf crisis.