Let us begin with a joke. It is a famous Eastern European joke, but it reminds me of what is happening right now in the Persian Gulf.
An Eastern European father is explaining to his child the difference between communism and capitalism. "Communism," the father says, "is the exploitation of man by man. But capitalism is the other way around."
What does this have to do with the Persian Gulf?
We have two nations confronting each other there. One, Iraq, is an absolute dictatorship. No freedom. No civil rights. And one man, a dictator, acting alone, can plunge his nation into war. On the other hand, we have America, the greatest democracy in history. Freedom. Checks and balances. A written Constitution. And one man, an elected president, acting alone, can plunge his nation into war.
Vive la difference.
As I write this, the Congress of the United States debates a resolution on the use of force in the Persian Gulf. It does this, however, only after about 400,000 troops have been sent to the gulf and a deadline for the use of force has been set. Which brings to mind a certain admonition about the locking of barn doors.
President Bush wants to win an approval of force from Congress, but he also makes clear he can unleash U.S. forces without it.
So what has Congress become? An impotent debating society?
Our Constitution says Congress is a coequal branch of government. And that in order for democracy to work, Congress has a duty to act as a check and balance upon our president.
But I listen to the debate. I listen to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., rise and say that if Congress dares to disagree with George Bush, "We will incapacitate the presidency in the future. If you can't accept what the president says as U.S. policy . . . that is a disaster."
Perhaps, senator. But that is also a democracy.
Not all that long ago in our history, Congress was at least as powerful as the presidency. People knew their senators and congressmen better than they knew the president, and they looked upon Congress as the place where the major decisions affecting their lives would be discussed and acted upon.
Television rapidly changed this. Presidents could now campaign directly to the American people over this powerful new medium. And presidents became better known to people than their own members of Congress. Presidents held televised news conferences, speeches and special addresses to the nation. And professional handlers helped package presidents as "personalities" who embodied certain American ideals: courage, fortitude, patriotism and down-home goodness.
And soon it was the president who dominated the national agenda.
So it was no surprise that George Bush did not go to Congress when he first took his actions in the gulf. Why should he limit his presidential power and prerogatives?
Instead, George Bush went to the United Nations. Which was a little surprising. The United States did not go to the United Nations for approval for the war in Vietnam. Or when we sent troops to Lebanon or bombed Libya or invaded Grenada or Panama.
So why did George Bush seek U.N. approval for his military actions in the Persian Gulf?
Because he needed some backing, some window-dressing, and he knewthe United Nations would be a pushover when it came to providing it.
Some have difficulty grasping why. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, said: "I find it inconceivable that the American Congress would be less willing to confront aggression than the United Nations."
Really? He is unable to conceive it? Perhaps this will help: The United Nations is willing to commit Americans to battle because the United Nations will not suffer from that battle.
No German boys will lose their arms. No Japanese girls will lose their legs. No Russians will die.
And that, Mr. Haig, is why Congress is more concerned than the United Nations about the use of force. Congress is made up of Americans. It is elected by Americans. And it cares about the loss of American lives far more than the United Nations does.
As I write this, I do not know whether Congress will support the president in the use of force in the Persian Gulf. But I do know that the president says he can plunge this nation into a war without the approval of Congress.
So when you get right down to it, which is the greater threat to our democracy: the dictator overseas or the president at home?