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Chicken Congress AWOL from battle

October 09, 2005|Susan J. Tolchin | Susan J. Tolchin is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and coauthor of the forthcoming "Global Anger -- How Political Leaders Manipulate Ancient Ethnic, Religious and Racial Feuds."

IF YOU BELIEVE what you see on "The West Wing," White House aides take President Bush's political temperature at least four times a day, and they must be very upset at recent readings. Even before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Iraq war was depressing Bush's approval ratings. According to recent polls, support for the war is at about 33%.

But few have blamed the real culprit in this fiasco: Congress. If only the Constitution were read by the White House half as often as polls, someone might catch the phrase "declaration of war" and read on to learn that only Congress has the power to declare war.

The president is commander in chief, but neither he nor the military can move without money, and Congress remains in charge of the country's purse.

It was ever thus, despite sporadic congressional attempts to challenge the president. According to professor Peter Irons, Congress tried to set the tone as early as 1815, when the Barbary pirates threatened American ships, but ended up giving President Madison the power to repel them.

In the early 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt outfoxed Congress, which had flatly turned down his request to send the Navy around the world in a show of force. With just enough money in the Treasury to ship them out, Roosevelt dispatched the ships in 1907 -- and challenged legislators either to leave the sailors in Tokyo Bay indefinitely or bring them home. You can guess the outcome.

Presidents have been careful to include Congress in major wars -- until the nuclear age. World War II was the last war officially declared by Congress. Since then, the U.S. has embarked on five wars, all courtesy of presidential initiative: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and Iraq.

At last (conservative) count, Congress has spent $258 billion on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the loss of lives continues unabated, as the insurgencies in both countries accelerate with each passing day.

The war in Iraq looks eerily like the war in Vietnam, which raged for 10 years before ending in an inglorious defeat for the United States. Congress dithered for years after giving President Johnson the go-ahead with the dubious Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.

Were the two U.S. destroyers in the gulf really fired on by North Vietnamese gunboats? Were the attacks launched in retaliation for U.S. commando raids on the coast of North Vietnam? Were the sailors shooting at flying fish or whales? No matter.

If Congress had been forced to declare war, rather than simply ratifying Johnson's fait accompli, the conduct of the war would have been different: Either the U.S. would have tried to win the war early and decisively, or it would have abandoned the effort much sooner.

Instead, Congress didn't even begin to withhold funds until the war began to wind down and the president could see the future.

Remember Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign claim that he had a "secret plan" to end the war? After nearly 58,000 American and 3 million Vietnamese deaths, Congress at long last protested "the imperial presidency" with passage of the War Powers Resolution in 1973.

The act, too little and too late, reads more like a joke than a serious piece of legislation, especially in view of Congress' constitutional obligation to declare war.

It requires the president to inform Congress after taking an aggressive military action that could be considered an act of war and to terminate hostilities within 60 days unless Congress has declared war. Sixty days? In a thermonuclear age?

The war in Iraq has brought a new dimension to the president's power to wage war without Congress. It's called "preemptive" or "preventive" war. Because terrorists can carry weapons of mass destruction across borders with impunity, simple logic presumes that war is justified on the grounds of imminent invasion.

And only the president, goes the reasoning, has the intelligence reports and the leadership capacity to act militarily to protect the nation against these security threats.

This gives the president too much discretion, leaving Congress far behind as the rubber stamp it has become. The decision on whether the nation is threatened, and if armed assault is the only way to counter that threat, has become a presidential prerogative.

This circumvents the Constitution, as if the rule of law does not apply to the world's only superpower. Congress should reenter the picture.

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