TOMORROW Congress will finally begin a formal debate on...

THEO LIPPMAN JR

January 09, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR

TOMORROW Congress will finally begin a formal debate on U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. I say "finally" because the debate begins:

156 days after President Bush ordered American armed forces into the area.

140 days after he called up the first reserve units.

120 days after he told Congress aggressive combat may replace sanctions.

63 days after he proved he meant it by nearly doubling the authorized troop level for the area from 230,000 to over 400,000.

I don't know whether Congress will ultimately approve a declaration of war; a declaration of no war; a declaration of let George decide, he's commander in chief; or a declaration of fudge.

There have been declarations of war in only two of this century's conflicts involving the U.S.A.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war, citing the March sinking of American merchant ships by German submarines. On April 4, after 13 hours debate, the U.S. Senate voted for the declaration 82-6. The House debated the matter for 17 hours beginning the morning of the 5th. It voted for war 375-50.

An interesting sidebar to that story is that the first woman ever elected to Congress cast her first vote on that declaration. She was Jeannette Rankin of Montana. She had been elected as a pacifist, but the emotional context of the vote made it difficult to vote her principles. She passed on the first roll call. On the second, she said, "I want to stand by my country but I cannot vote for war."

It was an unpopular vote. In 1918 she ran for the Senate, losing badly.

On Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, which had attacked U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere the day before. FDR's message was delivered at 12:30 p.m. By 2 p.m. the Senate had approved 82-0, and the House had 388-1. (The 1 was Jeannette, who had finally gotten back to to the House in the previous election. How's that for timing?)

FDR signed the declaration at 4:10 p.m. The whole shebang took three hours and 40 minutes. (Germany and Italy declared war on us three days later, and, without debate, we immediately declared war back on them.)

What will happen this week? I'm betting on fudge. But perhaps I shouldn't blame Congress too much for this. Perhaps members are truly representative of the national spirit.

A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows where the American people stand, if "stand" is the right word.

"Should we go to war to force Iraq out of Kuwait?" Yes! 63-32 percent.

"Should we if it means 1,000 American troops will be killed?" No, 53-44 percent.

"Should we if it means 10,000 American troops killed?" No! 61-35 percent.

We don't want a war, we want a Rambo movie.

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