WASHINGTON -- President Bush seems to be leading the nation irrevocably toward war in the Persian Gulf. The operative question now is whether he reaches some point of no return without Congress having a voice in the commitment to attack Saddam Hussein.
Or, put another way, the critical question is whether the leaders of Congress are going to allow that point to be passed without insisting on a debate of the policy. If they are more than potted plants, now is the time to show it.
The administration is trying to use the United Nations as essentially a cover for what inevitably will be primarily a United States initiative with potentially chilling consequences. That is the message in the frantic campaign Secretary of State James Baker has been conducting to line up enough votes in the Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force.
But the direction was set with the president's decision to order a huge buildup that has changed the character of the force in Saudi Arabia from defensive to offensive. And the seriousness of Bush's intention has been made increasingly plain by the new emphasis he and his chief advisers have been giving to justifications for an attack and to the necessity of action by the United Nations.
Indeed, it is the intensity of those efforts that makes the lack of involvement by Congress so striking. Bush is saying, in effect, that he needs a kind of green light from the U.N. that he doesn't seem to feel is required from Congress.
"We're talking about a [United Nations] resolution," Baker said the other day, "that would lay the political foundation for a possible use of force if we were unable to achieve a peaceful and political solution to the crisis."
National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft added that, although the language of a resolution still remains to be negotiated, "it will be something like taking the necessary means to enforce the 10 U.S. resolutions which so far Saddam Hussein has ignored" -- meaning resolutions demanding that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. Such a resolution, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney added, would be "a very useful first step" in preparing for the use of force if that became necessary.
Absent is any sense that the White House feels the need for a domestic "political foundation" before attacking Iraq. As support for his policy in opinion polls declines, he presses on.
The administration spokesmen also made an obviously orchestrated attempt to reinforce the concern Bush himself expressed last week about the danger of Saddam's developing a nuclear weapons capability. Scowcroft suggested the Iraqis could have such a weapon within "months." And Cheney warned that even if Saddam withdrew from Kuwait, "you are still going to have the problem of his acquisition of sophisticated weapons" -- a possibility, he said, that would require continued sanctions.
This new emphasis on the nuclear weapons question has come on the heels of public opinion surveys that show the voters give far more weight to their concern about such weapons in the hands of Saddam than they do about either the oil supply or the restoration to power of the emir of Kuwait. Anyone who believes the timing is coincidental doesn't understand the sensitivity to opinion polls in any White House. But this new element has been added to the dialogue without -- again -- ever being debated in Congress.
The president's unwillingness to cede any authority to Congress comes as no surprise. All presidents have been understandably concerned about having their hands tied in international affairs. The War Powers Act has been honored mostly in the breach.
But, reluctant though he may be, Bush would be in a far stronger position if there were a full-scale debate in Congress of all the issues involved here. Is Saddam's nuclear potential as real and immediate as Cheney and Scowcroft suggest? Is the nation ready to accept significant U.S. casualties to achieve the goals Bush has set in the Persian Gulf? What will be the result if the Iraqis respond to an attack by attacking Israel?
Democratic leaders in Congress have been voicing public cautions against rash or hasty actions in the Persian Gulf. But the time has arrived at which they must take the lead in insisting on a role in a decision of such magnitude. If they do not, Bush may pass that point of no return with an entirely unrealistic view of the national attitude.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appeared in the Perspective section of Th 3 Sunday Sun.