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However you feel about a preemptive military strike on Iraq – and I oppose it – hawks and doves alike should be very disturbed about reports that the Bush administration may not bother asking Congress for permission to wage this proposed war. According to the Washington Post and the Associated Press, the White House Counsel’s office has advised the president that he has all the authority he needs under the 1991 congressional resolutions which W’s father received before rolling back Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
This would be worse than a mistake – it would be a blunder of colossal proportions. That is because the decision to go to war is not legal in nature – it is, and properly should be, an entirely political one. And in a democracy, this means a national debate outside – but especially inside – the halls of Congress. The Framers of the Constitution certainly intended this. In Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress was specifically authorized “To declare War.” Why did they invest Congress, the elected representatives of the people, with this power? Why not just give it to the commander-in-chief, the president?
If you’re wondering about the wisdom of the Founders, just consider what happened in the two modern instances where this country went to war without a serious prior national debate and no declaration of war – Korea and Vietnam.
Both wars triggered terrible internal disruptions. With no real public debate, no legislators to consult their constituencies and take responsibility for having voted for or against the war, the searing hatreds unleashed along with the dogs of war scarred this country in ways that still affect us.
During the time of Korea, it was Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy. The military frustrations of the Korean War, the policies of the “police action” left ambiguous by President Truman, lent credibility to McCarthy’s claims of communist infiltration of the federal government. In the absence of a national debate – and consensus, pro or con the war – nobody was prepared to take on Sen. McCarthy until the war was over. Likewise, the lack of declared bipartisan support for the war may have encouraged Gen. Douglas McArthur in his frankly political defiance of President Truman as the commander-in-chief.
The lack of a truly national debate before committing troops to Vietnam may well have been the most horrendous political blunder in American history. Instead of a candid discussion about the realities of what that war might entail, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked for – and received from Congress – the authority he needed under the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a trumped-up claim that North Vietnamese patrol boats had fired on U.S. naval vessels. On the strength of this, he unilaterally committed 500,000 troops and incurred over 50,000 American dead. The domestic consequences were disastrous. This country experienced the worst domestic disruption since the Civil War.
So the wisdom of the Founders comes down to this: In a democracy, war ain’t beanbag. It’s not something the Supreme Court decides based on some obscure statute. It’s not a proposed rule by some administrative agency that has to appear in the Federal Register for 90 days before it becomes law. And it’s certainly not waged at the whim of the commander-in-chief. What war really is – and somehow, the Founders of the 18th century intuited this even before the advent of modern war – is the most profound commitment a nation can make, mortgaging its future in the lives of its young and its treasure spent.
Such a decision – especially in the case of a proposed preemptive war – requires that everyone with something to say have the opportunity to say it. Every elected representative must have the right to speak and specifically vote on it. And the president has the duty to convince us why this war must be fought – the evidence he has about our enemies and the risks that he is asking us to incur. If the president does not do this – and thus far, Bush has failed miserably to carry this burden – then the public has no duty to support him.
Here are the real risks: Wars never go as planned – we got lucky in Kuwait and Afghanistan. We may not be as lucky in Baghdad. Or Saddam may launch against Israel, Turkey or Kuwait. What then? Without a national debate and consensus, the results could be disastrous.
I oppose this war. There are members in Congress who oppose this war. Let us have our say. If we can’t carry the argument, so be it.
But we (and peace) must have a chance.