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War Issue Imperils Constitution

September 17, 2002|JOYCE APPLEBY and ELLEN CAROL DuBOIS | Joyce Appleby and Ellen Carol DuBois, history professors at UCLA, have circulated the American Historians' Petition, now with more than 1,200 signatures, urging Congress to assume its constitutional responsibility to vote on whether to declare war on Iraq.

The constitutional issue raised by the possibility of invading Iraq without congressional approval has not been put to rest, although the crisis may be forestalled by Iraq's agreement Monday to readmit U.N. arms inspectors.

The question remains: Is it possible to amend the Constitution through an act of collective forgetfulness?

An attack on Iraq has been bruited about ever since President Bush invoked an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address to Congress in January.

With plenty of time to request a formal declaration of war, failure to do so could only contribute to the impression that the Constitution is an archaic document, hardly a comforting thought for those who care about this country's institutions.

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is explicit in giving Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. There's no ambiguity here concerning the original intent. To complicate matters, Bush has announced that he would consult with Congress, as though it were his choice, not a constitutional imperative.

Speaking to voters in Indiana and Kentucky after Labor Day, the president further confused the situation by saying he did not expect a congressional debate to change his position. And more recently, he indicated his impatience with any prolonged congressional deliberations. Yet it is exactly this function of hearing from experts, canvassing opinions and expressing constituents' concerns that distinguishes Congress from the presidency.

Mindful of the way the president had usurped Congress during the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Act of 1973, which enabled the president to respond militarily to an attack but required congressional approval within 60 days of such a response.

Still, presidents have found ways of brushing off even this fig leaf honoring the Constitution. President Clinton, for instance, ignored efforts to get him to comply during the bombing of Kosovo.

The founding fathers left the declaring of war to Congress so that the representatives of those who would bear the brunt of war would make the awful choice of resorting to violence.

The founders also sought a balance to avoid a dangerous concentration of power in the presidency.

Failure to respect the Constitution by going to war on the president's say-so, without provocation, would rob American military action of all legitimacy.

The trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks may have numbed the public to how unprecedented a preemptive attack from the United States would be. It would violate every principle this country has stood for.

But after a drought of public discourse, who realizes this? Historians do. They cultivate the memory of their nation's principles and practices.

In this spirit, we have turned to an old tradition, that of citizens petitioning Congress for redress of grievances, to urge Congress to exert its constitutional authority.

We are not so foolish as to think we can stop a juggernaut or put starch into a wilted Congress. We do think that, by petitioning Congress, we might start a collective effort to rejuvenate civic culture.

Only a full debate and vote can help Americans understand the costs of a preemptive attack, the risks of war and its likely impact on the world.

A congressional resolution of support for the president could be merely a vaguely worded assertion on the dangers of Saddam Hussein. Only by voting for or against declaring war can Congress assume the awesome responsibility the Constitution gives it.

The U.S. now finds itself at a crossroads. Either it will return to the balance of powers the founding fathers created to protect constitutional government or it will keep alive the baleful legacy of the Cold War with its imperial presidency, suppression of dissent and a for-or-against-us mentality.

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