Republicans on Capitol Hill have pulled back just in time from their ill-considered attempt to limit a president's authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. The move was out of character for a party that since World War II has been steadfast in its internationalism. It was based not on constitutional principle but on a partisan urge to capitalize on President Clinton's foreign policy ineptness in Bosnia, Haiti and, especially, Somalia.
Former Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP's 1964 presidential nominee, rightly said he can't understand the "mistakes" Senate Republican leader Bob Dole has been making in trying to curb the president's power to commit U.S. troops to Haiti or Bosnia. "It's a damn sight better to have one man with the power to send me to war than 535 people [in Congress] who have a hard time spelling 'Washington,' " the one-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told the Arizona Republic.
Though we agree with Mr. Goldwater's stand, we have had no trouble in understanding Mr. Dole's tactics. A longtime aspirant for the presidency, he sought to ingratiate himself with closet isolationists in his party by proposing to cut off funding for military operations in Haiti before hastily settling for a toothless sense-of-the-Senate resolution.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., ever the voice of the Yahoos, could not resist the temptation to force the original, binding Dole initiative to a vote. He lost, predictably, by a vote of 81-19 as Democratic liberals, despite their own brand of isolationism, gave a Democratic president the kind of support many tried to deny George Bush at the outset of the Persian Gulf war.
Not that Mr. Bush has comported himself well. Wheedling as usual in a speech to party faithful, he indicated support for just the kind of curbs on presidential authority he vigorously opposed during his White House tenure. He would have been better advised to listen to his own national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who decried not only the Dole initiative but Sen. Robert Byrd's amendment to the defense appropriation bill that seeks to set out parameters for future U.S. military operations in Somalia -- including Mr. Clinton's own unwise March 31 deadline for withdrawal.
At issue here is not the wisdom or unwisdom of the administration's policies toward Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, some of which we have severely criticized. Rather, what is at stake (in Mr. Scowcroft's words) is "defining the proper role of Congress in the conduct of foreign policy and the use of our armed forces as an instrument of that policy."
Congress should put presidential policies to the test of public hearings, reports and investigations. It should appropriate the funds it deems necessary for a military establishment capable of defending the national security. But it should not try to micro-manage the armed forces or put foreign policy into a straitjacket -- objectives Senator Dole specifically deplored even as he tried to score political points by moving Congress in that direction.