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National Debate on Gulf Policy Would Produce Unity : Constitution: Bush wrongly believes that recent historical and political experience justify his acting without a declaration of war from Congress.

November 18, 1990|Robert Dallek | Robert Dallek is a professor of history at UCLA. His newest book is "When Politics Was King: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960," first of two volumes, to be published next year by Oxford University Press

Not since the Vietnam War has a U.S. President ordered so many American soldiers overseas. And President Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, have repeatedly warned that unless Saddam Hussein voluntarily withdraws his troops and tanks from Kuwait, the United States may have to use military force to dislodge them.

Distracted by arduous budget negotiations and midterm elections, Congress and the public followed the Administration's lead in the Persian Gulf with little protest. But the President's order to send an additional 200,000 men and women to Saudi Arabia, coupled with his increasing impatience with Hussein's stubbornness in the face of a U.N. embargo, have suddenly brought the prospects of war and all its terrible consequences to the nation's attention.

Pleas for a national debate and direct congressional action on the question of war and peace are growing in number and volume. Last week, leaders within the President's own party, as well as top Democratic lawmakers, urged him to call a special session of Congress to take up the issue.

The President has resisted these calls. Bush has insisted that he has no immediate plans to go to war, that he will give the embargo time to modify Iraqi behavior. In any event, the President said he would consult Congress.

But his failure to promise to seek congressional authorization for using force suggests that the President, despite warnings that domestic political turmoil could erupt over "George Bush's war," shows no signs of shifting the hard decision of war and peace to Congress--where the Constitution says the war-making power resides. Indeed, during a meeting with congressional leaders, Bush pulled a copy of the Constitution from inside his coat and acknowledged that it gave Congress war-making power. But he then pointedly asserted: "It also says that I'm commander in chief."

Why?

Because Bush believes that recent historical and political experience justify his acting without a national debate or a congressional declaration.

Like all U.S. Presidents since World War II, Bush operates on the assumption that prompt--and if necessary, secret--operations overseas by the White House are essential to protect U.S. national security in a dangerous world. He regards this proposition as an unassailable truth challenged only by the most naive. The life of the nation cannot be entrusted to 535 squabbling representatives and senators who lack the international perspective of a President--and the depth of foreign-policy experience of this President. Nor, the White House believes, should a responsible chief executive leave crucial questions of war and peace to a mostly uninformed and emotional public buffeted by media reporting.

The history and outcome of the Cold War also recommend political risk-taking for the national well-being. True, some administrations have suffered political setbacks and, in Lyndon B. Johnson's case, defeat for their boldness abroad. But when these losses are set alongside a world throwing aside communist governments and command economics in favor of democracy and free enterprise, Bush cannot doubt the wisdom of presidential initiative and decision-making in the Persian Gulf or, for that matter, on all questions of war and peace. Truman's Doctrine, Marshall's Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, intervention to save South Korea and secure Japan, Eisenhower's Doctrine for the Middle East, opposition to communism in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Grenada--all are examples of what the Administration believes ultimately made Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Central America safer for democracy.

The President also sees recent political history in the United States, and his role in it, as reasons to assume effective management of a war in the gulf. Nearly 60 years of successful media manipulation and spin-doctoring have fed politicians' faith in selling their programs, policies or images. In Bush's case, anyone who could so effectively sell the public on promises of no new taxes in a time of such mammoth deficits must have supreme faith in his ability to mobilize support for a war against the likes of Hussein.

A national debate, the President's men say, risks undermining his diplomatic campaign to punish Hussein's aggression. The Iraqi leader has already depicted the United States as a paper tiger, a nation lacking the will to lose 10,000 soldiers for what it sees as an uncertain cause. He exploited last week's congressional calls for a special session as signs of U.S. disunity. Thus, debating his gulf policy would play right into Hussein's hands.

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