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Put U.S. Intervention to Popular Vote : Peacekeeping: Congress resists checking presidential activism, so give the people input in an 'electronic town hall.'

October 17, 1995|ALAN TONELSON | Alan Tonelson is a Washington-based analyst who writes on foreign affairs for several national publications

Congress represents the best hope of stopping thousands of U.S. troops from being sent to Bosnia over strong public opposition, as the Constitution intended. But can Congress be trusted to play its constitutional role in this question of war and peace?

Congress has acquiesced in so many presidential wars--in Vietnam and Lebanon during the Cold War, in Somalia and Haiti after it--that the conclusion is inescapable: Our system for making responsible, politically sustainable military intervention decisions needs a radical fix. Starting now, with Bosnia, all questions of putting U.S. troops in harm's way abroad, for peacekeeping, peacemaking and other largely humanitarian purposes, should be submitted to popular vote.

Today, with no hostile superpowers to exploit them, many foreign crises have only local implications utterly irrelevant to America's safety or well-being. Yet American leaders have difficulty refraining from interventions even in the world's backwaters. And although Congress did force speedy withdrawals from Somalia and Haiti, it balked at preventing U.S. involvement in these potential quagmires in the first place.

The United States obviously will need to use force in the post-Cold War world. But for anyone believing that U.S. foreign policy should reflect the broad popular will, a new check on presidential war-making (or peacekeeping) is imperative. This is especially true in cases such as Bosnia, where the concrete benefits of intervention are elusive but the likely consequence of failure enormous.

In a difficult but rarely mortally threatening world, those who will provide the soldiers and the resources for interventions in marginal areas--the public--deserve more control over decision-making. A referendum system would fit the bill, and Bosnia is the perfect place to start.

States hold referendums on complex issues all the time. So do many European countries, even chaotic Russia. Creating a nationwide referendum here would be difficult administratively, but advances in interactive media might permit the kind of electronic town hall approach suggested by Ross Perot for other issues.

A referendum system would not impede the President's freedom to repel direct attacks on U.S. territory or forces. In fast-moving but lesser crises, a two-thirds vote in Congress before the shooting starts would suffice to give him carte blanche for a limited time. If Congress dawdled on voting, it would be reasonable to assume that the emergency really wasn't.

When more time for decision-making is available, public fickleness could be checked by requiring a certain level of support, perhaps as recorded on electronic petitions, for putting it to a referendum. And no vote should be binding (for or against military action) without a high turnout.

Frivolous votes in favor of interventions could be discouraged by stipulating that a yes vote is also an authorization to finance the operation fully through tax increases, rather than by borrowing from future generations. And the losers could always try to organize a new referendum.

Undoubtedly, Americans will make foreign policy mistakes under this new system, and perfecting it could take years. But that's the great thing about being a superpower in the post-Cold War world: Very few individual setbacks will be disastrous, and even repeated setbacks need not create irreversible damage. In any event, experts make horrific foreign policy mistakes so often (just look at U.S. Bosnia policy) that effectiveness could actually improve.

Although American commitments could seem less reliable, a strong country capable of keeping 'em guessing is often doubly blessed in international politics and economics, being less likely to be taken for granted by friend and foe alike. More important, the potential gains of a more democratically made foreign policy are hardly negligible: a better informed public, and more responsible decision-making by voters forced to confront the costs and risks of their opinions.

Since the mid-1970s, politicians and foreign policy experts from both parties have repeatedly urged strengthening and expanding democracy abroad. Why not seize an opportunity at home and in the process give some desperately needed clarity to a Bosnia policy that has drifted dangerously for far too long.

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