DESPITE ANGUISH and anger over the Bush administration's decision to escalate its failing war in Iraq, Congress is unlikely to cut off funding. Even most opponents of the war fear that they could be blamed for not supporting the troops in the field and for a possible descent into even greater catastrophe in the face of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
But nothing prevents Congress from using its power of the purse to prevent an American attack on Iran. President Bush's neoconservative advisors and pundit supporters have been beating the drums of war with Iran since 2003, when the president declared Iran to be part of an "axis of evil." Recall that a senior administration official told The Times that Iran should "take a number" in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. In his recent address to the nation on the troop surge in Iraq, Bush issued more threats to Iran. Now the president has named a Navy admiral to head the U.S. Central Command and dispatched a second aircraft carrier and minesweepers to the Persian Gulf, presumably to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz in the event of conflict.
These developments and other administration moves could presage an air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Iran is not innocent of dangerous and provocative behavior. Tehran has supported insurgent groups in Iraq, including helping to provide sophisticated explosives that have killed U.S. soldiers. And Iran's continued development of a nuclear enrichment facility is in defiance of the international community's demand to halt those actions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repulsive statements about the Holocaust and Israel add to the nervousness about Iran's future actions.
But war is not yet justified, except in the minds of those who have been lobbying for it for years. Iran is still years away from being a nuclear threat, and our experience with "preventive war" in Iraq should teach us a thing or two. Launching another such war without international approval would leave us even more politically isolated and militarily overstretched. Attacking a Middle Eastern country -- one much stronger than Iraq and with the ability to cut off oil supplies from the Strait of Hormuz -- could inflame the region, intensify Shiite militia attacks on our soldiers in Iraq and stimulate terrorist attacks on Americans and U.S. interests worldwide.
But recklessness, not prudence, has been the hallmark of this administration's foreign policy. Beyond this, the president and vice president subscribe to what some call the "unitary executive," which is a fancy way of saying they believe that Congress cannot prevent the president from doing almost anything he wants. The 1973 War Powers Act, passed in the wake of our disastrous war in Vietnam, allows the president to put U.S. troops in a combat situation under certain conditions before obtaining any congressional authorization to do so. When Bush signed the Iraq war resolution, he issued a statement challenging the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, indicating that he could take the nation to war without obeying its restrictions. Unfortunately, even if the president were to agree to the act's restrictions, he could still attack Iran and have up to 90 days before being required to get congressional authorization for the attack.
What to do? Congress should not wait. It should hold hearings on Iran before the president orders a bombing attack on its nuclear facilities, or orders or supports a provocative act by the U.S. or an ally designed to get Iran to retaliate, and thus further raise war fever.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has warned the administration that it had better seek congressional authorization for any attack on Iran. But we need Senate and House hearings now to put the Bush administration on notice that, in the absence of an imminent military attack or a verified terrorist attack on the United States by Iran, Congress will not support a U.S. military strike on that country. Those hearings should aim toward passage of a law preventing the expenditure of any funds for a military attack on Iran unless Congress has either declared war with that country or has otherwise authorized military action under the War Powers Act.
The law should be attached to an appropriations bill, making it difficult for the president to veto. If he simply claims that he is not bound by the restriction even if he signs it into law, and then orders an attack on Iran without congressional authorization for it, Congress should file a lawsuit and begin impeachment proceedings.
It is, of course, possible that the president's truculent language and actions toward Iran are a bluff, an attempt to rein in its irresponsible behavior.
But the administration's mendacious and incompetent course of action in taking the nation to war with Iraq gives us no reason to provide the president with the benefit of any doubt. And stiffening economic sanctions -- at a time when Iran's economy is ailing and the regime is losing popular support -- offers a better and safer prospect of exerting leverage.
Another war of choice would only pour fuel on the fires of the Middle East. And the history of this administration shows that if Congress does not constrain this president, he could well act recklessly again, in ways that would profoundly damage our national interest.