Bush ought to heed Lugar on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 14, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Richard Lugar's call on President Bush to tell Congress exactly what his goals are in the Persian Gulf and then ask for a resolution of support will doubtless be seen at the White House as an obstructive act by a fellow Republican. But in the long run it could save the president's political hide, and possibly the lives of tens of thousands of young Americans as well.

Lugar, as ranking Republican of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is no soft-headed peacenik who runs from any thought of using military force to advance national interests. And that's why his proposal, added to similar voices of influential Democrats and a few other Republicans in Congress, raises the heat on Bush to comply.

Lugar has couched his proposal as supportive of the president, as a means of demonstrating to Saddam Hussein that Bush has Congress behind him as he moves to make good on his insistence that Iraq's August invasion of Kuwait "will not stand." But behind such diplomatic language is the possibility that growing congressional opposition to offensive U.S. military action will force Bush to stay on the road toward a peaceful settlement by giving the U.N.-imposed sanctions considerably longer to work.

Lugar, asked what would happen if Congress after thoroughly debating Bush's statement of objectives declined to give him a resolution of support, replied, "It's better to know that now." That would be a chance the president would have to take, he said, because without a clear declaration of congressional support his pressures on Iraq will lack the credibility needed to bring the desired results.

In their zeal to tighten the screws on Saddam Hussein in a high-stakes psychological game of chicken, the president and Secretary of State James Baker have been insultingly cavalier to Congress in contending that the executive branch is not constitutionally required to obtain a declaration of war before launching offensive action against Iraq.

It may be considered old-fashioned these days to go back to the language of the Constitution, but Article I, Section 8 states simply and categorically that "Congress shall have power . . . to declare war" as well as to "raise and support armies" and "provide and maintain a navy." Article II, Section 2 says that "the president shall be commander in chief of the Army and the Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States. . . ."

What has been fashionable ever since World War II, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt did seek and swiftly obtained a declaration of war from Congress, has been to ignore this categorical language in the Constitution. U.S. entry into the Korean War, for example, was justified on the semantic grounds that this country was engaging only in a "police action" to resolve a "conflict" as sanctioned by the United Nations.

Similarly, no declaration of war was sought in the gradual U.S. military buildup into a major war in Vietnam. The closest to it was the now-infamous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a blank check for U.S. offensive action, extracted from Congress by President Lyndon Johnson by providing a misleading and erroneous account of a skirmish involving small North Korean torpedo boats pTC against an American destroyer in August 1964.

President Ronald Reagan said he had to invade Grenada in 1983 without asking Congress in order to "rescue" American medical students at a school whose chancellor said they were about to be evacuated in an orderly fashion. And, when Bush invaded Panama last December he cited as one of the reasons that forces of Manuel Noriega had killed one American serviceman, wounded another, brutally beaten a third "and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with sexual abuse."

While such conduct obviously is deplorable, it is debatable about whether it warrants the commitment of a powerful nation's might in response. While it is generally accepted that the president can commit forces to respond to unprovoked attacks, history has provided adequate reason for skepticism about the reality and severity of such justifications by a president who wants to act on his own.

Thus, when White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater says that "there are always those unforeseen kinds of provocation that might result in having to move first," Lugar's call for Bush to tell Congress exactly what he's trying to do, and get its approval or rejection, is both prudent and urgent.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 1 Sunday Sun.

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