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Congress' role in war is more for show

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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 9, 2002


WASHINGTON -- When it comes to matters of war, Congress is almost useless.

No president is ever going to ask members of Congress for consent to wage war unless he knows he already has their support. And no Congress is going to deny the White House such a request if the president is willing to stake his reputation on it.

This is the truth that has been overlooked by President Bush's many critics, who argue that he cannot launch an attack against Iraq without getting congressional approval. They would have us believe that what Congress does in this case really matters, even though they are woefully short on historical precedent.

I am not suggesting that Bush should simply ignore the sentiments of members of Congress. But I caution you not to put too much stock in what Congress does in reaction to the president's plan for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. Bush has far more sway over Congress on this subject than he does on most other issues.

When the framers of the Constitution gave Congress the power to declare war, they knew from experience what it was like to undertake a war without the complete support of the people. The colonies still had plenty of citizens who were loyal to King George. The founding fathers decided that proponents of any war should be required to make their case, and that remains true today.

But the framers could never have anticipated the kind of warfare the United States is facing today. In the 18th century, it was inconceivable that fewer than two dozen men armed with box cutters would or could deliver a deadly surprise attack on the most heavily armed nation in the world.

While war is no less controversial now than it was when the country was founded, the character of modern conflict calls for more leadership by the president than was envisioned by the framers. Now, when the executive branch determines that the country is in imminent danger, the president must act quickly.

Members of Congress have long recognized this fact of modern life. As unpopular as the war in Vietnam became, Congress never intervened. The 1973 War Powers Resolution, which was designed to restore some balance between the executive and legislative branches on this subject, asked only for notification of Congress whenever American combatants were deemed by the president to be in harm's way.

And when presidents failed to comply with the war powers resolution, there was no penalty. In fact, no president has ever acknowledged a binding legal obligation to comply with that law, even though it remains on the books.

The truth is Congress does not want the power to declare war.

Members of Congress want the right to criticize and second-guess the president's decisions, but they do not want to be held accountable for any loss of American lives on the battlefield.

Perhaps it was easier for members of Congress to take principled stands on issues of war and peace before the advent of the career politician. It does not pay for members who want to make a career of Congress to get out in front either opposing or proposing a military response to foreign aggression.

For career politicians in Congress, the only wise option -- especially with an election looming just two months away -- is to reserve judgment. That is why Republicans and Democrats alike are saying they have not made up their minds. That is why they are urging Bush to make a better case for attacking Iraq.

If there were any political opportunity in rejecting Bush's proposal, the Democrats would have already seized it. But the American people would have to be strongly against it for these representatives to step out of the shadows.

Career politicians in Congress are very careful never to cast a vote that can be ridiculed by a potential election opponent in a 30-second television advertisement. Thus no one in Congress wants to go on record supporting a foreign war unless he or she is certain that a substantial majority will take the same position, giving them political cover.

Of course, any president would love to have Congress' approval before he undertakes a risky move such as attacking Iraq. But he cannot simply ask for congressional support, because that would be giving the president's critics an opportunity to grandstand. Instead, the president must create a climate in which members of Congress feel politically safe to back such an attack.

This is exactly what Bush's father did before launching the Persian Gulf War. Initially, he declared he did not need congressional approval. That caused members of Congress to demand a vote. Then the president waited to make certain he had enough votes for war before he formally requested it.

Therefore, what Congress and the current President Bush are doing is little more than a political minuet designed to produce a predictable outcome. Probably the only real purpose Congress serves in this situation is to force Bush to better explain his intentions.

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