Cooperation, please

October 29, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

IF THERE is an American corollary to Georges Clemenceau's maxim that "war is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military," it is that it cannot be left to either the president or the Congress on its own.

Thus far, the administration has declined to promise it will not order an attack on Iraq without consulting Congress. Its reticence stems from justifiable fear that such discussions would become public and warn the Iraqis. Some congressional committees, in fact, do have a record of breaking confidences. But so do departments of the executive branch.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley nevertheless have named a special 18-member bipartisan committee with which the president can consult during the upcoming congressional recess. They also included a provision in their resolution of adjournment allowing Congress to reconvene itself without a presidential summons, should hostilities break out. These are prudent but restrained precautions, and the administration ought to engage them in a similar spirit. When it comes to issues of waging war, the Constitution is a rather Delphic guide: It names the president commander-in-chief, but gives Congress the power to raise armies and declare war. Clearly, the Founders envisioned some sharing of responsibility, but were unclear on the precise division of labor.

The lessons of recent history are similarly contradictory: The divisive debacle of Vietnam resulted in significant measure from executive usurpation and legislative laxity; the embarrassing failure of the War Powers Act was a lesson in the perils of congressional micromanagement.

Neither folly commends itself to us now. What is required is that the administration take a realistic and flexible view of its constitutional mandate and that Congress reciprocate with diligence and restraint. The stakes here are not abstract. Thousands of American men and women are in the field, under arms, confronting a brutal and deadly antagonist. They deserve the sort of national support only a unified government can guarantee.

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