Legislators, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war when approaching a new one. This is the case with Congress, whose institutional memories of the Vietnam conflict have tempered and influenced its response to the potential conflict in the Persian Gulf.
This week, as the diplomatic option enters endgame, the new 102nd Congress seems as determined to debate the use of offensive military force against Iraq as it is uncertain what it should do.
There are doves who want to restrain President Bush from ordering American troops into action. There are hawks who favor giving the president this endorsement in advance. There are others who claim authority over the decision to launch war, a stance disputed by the White House. And there are some lawmakers who suspect Congress is incapable of doing anything except talk.
Does this uncertainty mean the legislative branch learned nothing from the Vietnam experience? Hardly. The debate on the wisdom of war with Iraq, before even a shot has been fired, is already well advanced over what it was years into the Vietnam conflict.
In the early days of Vietnam, Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening were lonely voices of opposition, voting against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which President Johnson interpreted as an unceasing green light. But as the fighting dragged on and casualties mounted and an anti-war movement formed, one senator after another followed the Morse-Gruening lead. Among the most important were Sens. Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, John Sherman Cooper and Jacob Javits.
Also Sen. Stuart Symington, a former secretary of the Air Force, whose seemingly cynical, have-it-both-ways cry to "win or get out" became over time one of talismans of the Vietnam experience.
Thus, we have President Bush promising Iraq will not be "another Vietnam," Gen. Colin Powell warning that U.S. strikes, if they come, will be massive and overwhelming and Sen. Daniel Inouye predicting the war will be over in five days.
In congressional terms, there has been a rush among some Democratic liberals to become the modern equivalents of Senators Morse and Gruening. But just as those long-ago Congresses could never assert institutional war powers until U.S. involvement in Vietnam was virtually at an end, so the present Congress is edgy about either endorsing or defying the White House lead. No wonder Harry Truman's concept of presidential war powers still prevails. No wonder Stuart Symington's formula applies.
Vietnam taught that the United States cannot win a long war that loses congressional and popular support; Iraq may show whether the U.S. can win a short war before opposition really develops.