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Congress Authorizes Gulf War : Historic act: The vote in both houses, supporting Bush and freeing troops to attack Iraq, is decisive and bipartisan. It is the strongest move since Tonkin Gulf.

January 13, 1991|SARA FRITZ and WILLIAM J. EATON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.).

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