The Democratic-controlled Congress, closing ranks behind President Bush at a crucial moment in American history, voted Saturday to authorize U.S. troops to attack Iraq as early as Wednesday.
Bush’s victory was decisive and bipartisan, even though the authorization was strongly opposed by the Democratic leadership and most aspirants for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many Democrats abandoned their party leaders, and Republicans were nearly unanimous in support of the President.
The Senate adopted the resolution 52 to 47; the House vote was 250 to 183.
The action was the most explicit authorization of war by Congress since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution approved U.S. military involvement in Vietnam in 1964. And it was a pivotal event in the presidency of George Bush, who already has committed nearly 400,000 American troops to the Persian Gulf.
Before approving the joint resolution authorizing use of force, the House and Senate each soundly rejected an alternative measure proposed by the Democratic leadership that called on Bush to continue relying on economic sanctions instead. The sanctions resolution lost 53 to 46 in the Senate and 250 to 183 in the House.
At the White House, Bush said the congressional authorization will demonstrate to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein the resolve of the United States to use force if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait by midnight Tuesday, the deadline imposed by the United Nations.
“Peace is everyone’s goal,” Bush said. “Peace is in everyone’s prayers. But it is for Iraq to decide.”
Bush, who watched some of the debate on television, congratulated Congress for its decorum and for demonstrating neither the rancor nor the jubilation that often follow a hard-fought partisan contest.
While Bush said he still hopes a military confrontation can be averted, there appeared to be little doubt among members of Congress that the nation is on the brink of war. “I am afraid the decision has already been made for a massive use of force,” said Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.).
Nor was there any doubt expressed that the United States would win.
Nevertheless, despite the decisive margin of support for the President’s policy, it was clear that most members of Congress--including many who voted to authorize force--feel that Bush would be making a tragic mistake to expend thousands of American lives to liberate Kuwait.
“No one wants war,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who lost the use of his right arm in World War II. “No one abhors war more than those of us who have fought in one. No one wants a single American--or for that matter, a single Iraqi--to die.”
Many lawmakers cautioned Bush that it would be foolish to go to war without a national consensus favoring such action. “Even if you win today, you still lose,” declared Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). “The nation is divided on this issue.”
The vote came as the climax of three days of emotional debate--the longest House debate, in fact, in the history of that chamber. But the outcome was never in doubt, and there was a sense of solemn resignation as members cast what many said was the toughest vote of their political careers.
“I’ve cast 12,822 votes during my 39 years in Congress,” remarked Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). “But this vote is the most important vote that I shall have cast in my career.”
The vote marked the beginning of a Senate career of John Seymour (R-Calif.), who was sworn in earlier this week as Gov. Pete Wilson’s successor. He voted with the President. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who would have opposed Bush had he not been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in California, was the only absent senator.
Some speakers stressed that the three-page resolution adopted by Congress is tantamount to a declaration of war, even though it was not technically drafted as one. Based on the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Nov. 29, it gives the President authorization to use force any time after Tuesday, but only if he notifies Congress that his diplomatic efforts have failed.
Even though the United States has been involved in about 200 armed conflicts, the Congress has formally declared war only five times: against Great Britain in 1812, Mexico in 1846 and Spain in 1898, as well as in the two world wars.
In the past, when Congress has authorized the use of military force, the vote usually has been overwhelming. According to Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), the Senate vote was the narrowest margin since authorization of the War of 1812.
Bush’s resolution was legally similar to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which permitted President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam. And some Democrats argued that Bush has deceived Congress about the threat to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf, much as they contend that Johnson exaggerated the threat to American forces in Vietnam.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) repeatedly referred to the resolution as “a blank check"--the term often used to describe the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
While the memory of the Vietnam War clearly haunted many members of Congress as they deliberated, it was obvious that the fears of armed conflict that dominated congressional decision-making in the post-Vietnam period had been dispelled.
Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.) noted that the bitter memory of Vietnam has given way to the more recent success of U.S. forces in Grenada, Panama and Libya.
In fact, the lessons of Vietnam were used by both sides to bolster their arguments.
To supporters of the President, the central lesson of Vietnam was that the United States should never again commit troops to a war that it does not intend to win. They encouraged the President to hit Iraq with a massive air strike and use everything short of nuclear weapons if he chooses to wage war.
To his opponents, the lesson was that the United States should never enter into a war without overwhelming support in Congress and the nation. “Do we really want to go to war with a country so deeply divided on the issue--and it is deeply divided?” asked Rep. David E. Bonier (D-Mich.), a Vietnam veteran.
Veterans of the Vietnam conflict found themselves on both sides of the issue. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy pilot who spent five years in a Hanoi POW camp, voted with Bush; Rep. Douglas Peterson (D-Fla.), another former POW, voted against the resolution.
McCain made no mention of his experiences, but Peterson said he vowed during his seven years of captivity to oppose any future commitment of U.S. troops without popular support.
Surprisingly, a number of former anti-war activists from the Vietnam War era were in the President’s camp. One congressman who entered politics in order to oppose the war in Vietnam, Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), was the chief Democratic sponsor of the war resolution. Solarz acknowledged that he never expected to be arguing in Congress to go to war.
But World War II--not Vietnam--seemed to be the historical model that dominated the debate. Like Bush, many members compared Hussein to Adolf Hitler and noted that the lives of millions of people could have been saved if Hitler had been stopped sooner.
Solarz likened the situation in the Persian Gulf to Munich, where the allies sought to appease Hitler. “The great lesson of our times is that evil still exists,” he said, “and when evil is on the march it must be confronted.”
While the Persian Gulf has been portrayed by Bush as a “defining moment” for the post-Cold War era, Democrats criticized the President for ignoring the lesson of 40 years of U.S.-Soviet tension, during which--in Simon’s words--"we were firm and tough and patient and we won.”
By setting a deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, Bush left Congress with little room to maneuver. The President’s supporters emphasized repeatedly that Iraq would be encouraged to stay in Kuwait if Congress rejected a request for authorization to use force.
Most Democrats who opposed the President said they do not oppose use of force against Iraq in any circumstances, but they feel Bush is being precipitous in threatening to attack now before economic sanctions have succeeded in leaving that country helpless to wage war.
But even though Democratic leaders opposed the resolution, 10 Democratic senators and 86 House Democrats defected from their party leaders’ position. Most of them were Southern conservatives, staunch supporters of Israel and pro-defense Democrats.
Those who supported the resolution argued that the United States could not delay the use of force because it would undermine the morale of U.S. forces and permit a disintegration of the international coalition against Iraq.
Moreover, they said, Bush can be trusted to use the authorization in a way that will avert war. “President Bush is not a gun-slinger, he is not a Rambo,” said Rep. Rod Chandler (R-Wash.).
Mitchell and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) led the battle against the President, with strong backing from Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the leading defense expert among congressional Democrats. Their followers included conservatives as well as liberals--including some pro-Israel members--and all but one of the Democrats mentioned as potential presidential nominees in 1992.
Of the presidential aspirants, only Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) defied party leaders. And of the 26 California Democrats in the House, six voted with the President while one--Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton)--was absent.
Not only did the Democratic leaders fail to hold their members together, they had little success in appealing to Republican votes. In the Senate, only Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) voted with the Democrats on both resolutions. In the House, the President had only three Republican opponents: newly elected California Rep. Frank D. Riggs (R-Windsor) and Reps. Constance Morrella (R-Md.) and Silvio Conte (R-Conn.).
The purest anti-war stance was taken by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), who voted against both the resolution authorization force and the Democratic alternative urging continued reliance on sanctions. He pleaded with Bush to pull U.S. forces out of the Persian Gulf.
“This is not a war we--as a nation--are prepared to fight,” Hatfield cautioned. “Not for oil or pride or anything else. Not now. Not ever. We may have the firepower, but we do not have the will.”
Yet Hatfield was by no means the only speaker who emphasized the horrors of war.
Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.) told of how his neighbor had learned of the death of a son. Even before he was informed, he screamed aloud when he spied a uniformed military courier approaching him: “My God, they’ve killed my son!”
Like many, Rep. Mary Rose Okar (D-Ohio) warned that an attack on Iraq could spark a conflagration in the Middle East. “There will be no surgical strike against Saddam Hussein--there will be a world war of untold dimensions,” she said.
Although the resolution was not worded as a formal war declaration, Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reminded members that the effect could be the same.
“You are empowering the President to use the awesome military might of the United States,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it and there’s no tomorrow about it.”
Bush has never conceded he needs congressional approval to go to war, even though the Constitution invests in Congress the right to declare war. Democrats and Republicans saw Saturday’s vote as a reassertion of congressional prerogatives, and the House underscored that point by voting 301 to 131 for a resolution restating the language of the Constitution.