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War-Powers Issue--Again

September 24, 1987

It was, as they say on the TV crime shows, a clean bust. An Iranian naval vessel was caught in the act and recorded on film as it sowed mines in the international sea lanes of the Persian Gulf. The ship, abandoned after it came under attack from U.S. helicopters, was boarded by Navy commandos, who found additional mines. This is the kind of tangible and irrefutable evidence that prosecutors love to take into court. If Iran were on trial for criminally endangering freedom of shipping, it could surely expect to be swiftly convicted and severely punished.

But of course that isn't the way things work when nations are called to account for breaching the rules of international conduct. About the best that can be hoped for instead is that this proof of Iranian wrongdoing may now force the U.N. Security Council to rethink its reluctance to support a worldwide embargo on arms sales to Iran. That's possible, though realistically it's not likely. Iran doesn't have many friends in the world, but it does have a lot of business associates. Among them is China, a permanent member of the Security Council, which earns a lot of hard currency selling war goods to the Tehran regime.

Meanwhile Iran, photographed with a smoking gun in its hand, has taken refuge behind a screen of rhetorical thunder, openly threatening the United States with unspecific if ferocious punishment for daring to defend freedom of the seas. Iran's earlier caution in trying to hide its responsiblity for the gulf mining makes this aggressive bluster surprising. Exposed now, Iran is making the kind of threats that virtually dare American retaliation should U.S. citizens or property almost anywhere be attacked. With this week's events, the opportunities if not necessarily the inclination for a direct U.S.-Iran confrontation seem clearly to have grown.

Congress recognizes that, and once again there is talk about forcing the Reagan Administration to invoke the War Powers Act. This accurately reflects the military risks facing U.S. forces in the gulf. The problem is that Congress has perceived such risks before--in Lebanon in 1983, in the gulf earlier this year--only to choose to duck the war-powers issue rather than force it to resolution.

The reason is political, for if the War Powers Act does come into play then Congress must go on record either supporting the use of U.S. military power in the gulf or requiring that it be withdrawn. Many in Congress would rather not have to make that decision and so share in the responsibility for whatever may happen. This equivocation doesn't seem to us to be useful either in assuring friends or in giving pause to foes. Most of all, it's unfair to U.S. forces in the gulf. They are the ones whose lives are at risk. Surely they have the right to know whether Congress approves their being where they are.

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