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Bush Should Seek Congress' Backing for a War on Iraq

The president would be wise to follow his father's 1990 example.

July 28, 2002|DEREK CHOLLET

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold hearings this week that will begin one of the most important national dialogues on U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War: How the Bush administration plans to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and perhaps even more critical, how it will help Iraq once he is gone.

Until now, these questions have been confined to policy experts debating hypothetical scenarios or press speculation fueled by Pentagon leaks of draft U.S. war plans. Such haphazard debates lack the seriousness of the task at hand and have done little to address the concerns of common citizens or key allies. The administration needs to promote this discussion, not run from it.

The president would be wise to follow the example of his father, who more than a decade ago faced a similar situation with a public divided about using military force to confront Hussein.

During the fall of 1990, President Bush the elder decided that he wanted Congress "to bless what I'm about to do" and set forth on an intense lobbying campaign to win support.

Some of his top advisors--including then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney--argued that seeking congressional approval was unnecessary and too risky, but the president went ahead and gained Congress' support in a narrow vote.

President George W. Bush should now seek a similar seal of approval from Congress.

Two weeks ago, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter submitted a resolution asking for a vote to authorize using force against Hussein, and President Bush should publicly declare his support.

By making his case for action now, and having the people's representatives vote on it, the president will take a major step toward developing the domestic backing he will need to succeed.

Yet inside the administration, many of Bush's advisors are offering the same counsel his father overruled 12 years ago.

They say that, legally, Congress does not need to authorize the use of force and that engaging in such a debate now could undermine consensus, embolden Bush's critics and give comfort to U.S. enemies. They fear too the loss of an element of surprise.

Such arguments are not without merit. Putting any policy to an up-or-down congressional vote is a calculated risk. But there are at least three good reasons the president must take this gamble.

The first is that a vote's outcome is not really in question--barring some catastrophe, Congress will support the president. The question is not whether to act against Hussein, but when and how.

A congressional debate also would force the administration to explain its rationale for confronting Hussein now, weigh the options for doing so and detail how it would help rebuild Iraq once that nation's leader was gone.

This would show that the U.S. had thought through its actions and rebut those at home and abroad who caricature Bush as a callow cowboy who acts without regard to costs or consequences.

Finally, and most urgent, a congressional debate and vote would help prepare Americans for the long road ahead. This means bracing people for the immediate costs of conflict, including possible U.S. casualties. And it means preparing Americans for their responsibilities after Hussein is gone.

Unfortunately, while the U.S. has many military and covert tools to defeat Hussein, it has far fewer resources to build what comes next.

Although President Bush plans to add $15 billion to the U.S. foreign assistance budget over the next three years, this is not even enough to fulfill our current responsibilities, let alone a massive reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Because of the potential sacrifices that Americans would be asked to make in a campaign against Iraq, they deserve to be better informed. And Congress deserves an opportunity to vote on it.


Derek Chollet was in the U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration.

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