WASHINGTON — President Bush formally asked Congress on Tuesday to permit him to go to war with Iraq--the first presidential request for authorization of military force in more than a quarter of a century.
"I am determined to protect America's security," Bush declared in a two-page letter that appeared to mark a crucial step after a five-month U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf. "I ask Congress to join me in this task."
Although Bush's request is expected to precipitate a wrenching, emotional debate about war and peace in Congress, there appears little doubt that it will be approved. The House is expected to vote in favor of it Saturday; the Senate is likely to approve it early next week.
Specifically, Bush asked Congress to ratify the same resolution that was adopted last Nov. 29 by the U.N. Security Council. It permits the use of force if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15.
If approved, the resolution would effectively serve as a U.S. declaration of war with Iraq, according to congressional leaders. It would also be the first time since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed on Aug. 7, 1964, that Congress has authorized the use of military force.
In fact, liberal Democrats, who are fearful of a protracted war such as that waged by the United States in Vietnam, have complained that the resolution sought by Bush would give the Administration a "blank check" similar to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. That resolution permitted President Lyndon B. Johnson to carry on the Vietnam War without obtaining further approval from Congress.
Congress has declared war only five times in U.S. history, even though the nation has been involved in an estimated 200 armed conflicts.
Bush did not acknowledge in his letter to Congress that he needs its approval to go to war. He has consistently maintained that he has the constitutional authority as commander in chief to go to war without such approval, and he apparently never considered asking for congressional support until it was apparent that he had a majority.
Nevertheless, the President indicated that he wants the approval of Congress to "send the clearest possible message" to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the United States is determined to intervene militarily if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15.
At the White House, Bush emphasized that he is not threatening to go to war as soon as the deadline has passed.
"Let me be clear about the upcoming deadline," he said in a videotaped message. "Jan. 15 is not a date certain for the onset of armed conflict; it is a deadline for Saddam Hussein to choose, to choose peace over war."
Although Bush had not previously asked for a vote, he expressed disappointment that Congress had not acted sooner so that Secretary of State James A. Baker III would have been able to show the congressionally approved resolution to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz when they meet in Geneva today.
In response, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said he is glad that the President finally has realized that he should get the approval of the Democratic-controlled Congress before going to war. Congressional leaders insist that Congress alone has the constitutional power to declare war.
Already, Bush's appeal to Congress appears to be having an impact on Capitol Hill. According to reliable sources, House Democratic leaders expect Bush's resolution to pass by a much larger margin than House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) has predicted publicly.
Foley has been saying that a slim victory is likely for the President in the House.
Even many opponents of the Administration's Persian Gulf policy are expected to vote in favor of the resolution to demonstrate solidarity with the President at a time of crisis. In addition, some liberal Democrats who might otherwise oppose military intervention are expected to support Bush at the urging of the Israeli lobby.
Members of Congress who oppose immediate military intervention--including the Democratic Party's two most prominent leaders, Foley and Mitchell--will propose an alternative resolution calling on Bush to continue economic sanctions against Iraq. But sources said that these leaders are not pressuring other Democrats to vote against the President.
One of the President's leading Democratic supporters, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that he will vote in favor of the Bush resolution based on his analysis that the United States will defeat Iraq while sustaining 5,000 American casualties, including about 1,000 deaths.
"If all else fails, war is a reasonable option in this case," Aspin said.