Finally, a debate on Iraq

August 05, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After months of bellicose talk from President Bush conveying the sense that an American invasion of Iraq is inevitable, Congress has finally gotten around to raising serious questions about the wisdom and ramifications of such action.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held two days of hearings last week, attempting to assess the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein and the likely aftermath of what is delicately called a "regime change" in Iraq.

The general answer was that it will cost U.S. taxpayers many billions of dollars to bring about that change, and probably bring higher oil prices as well, with the United States obliged to keep a presence in that country indefinitely.

At the same time, news reports are flourishing about serious debate within the Bush administration, and particularly within the Pentagon, between civilian policymakers who want to press on with an invasion and military leaders who question the means and likely effectiveness of that step.

Also, economists have been warning that an invasion of Iraq could blunt any economic recovery at home, leading to a deeper federal deficit. The United States would probably be forced to pay for most of the effort itself, unlike the Persian Gulf war led by the senior George Bush in the early 1990s, in which, according to The New York Times, allies paid 80 percent of the bills.

In all this, the assumption seems to be at the White House that President Bush has the power to initiate war on his own, without regard to the Constitution's explicit declaration in Article I, Section 8, that "the Congress shall have power ... to declare war."

In little-noticed hearings earlier this year by Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, a string of academics cited this clear reference. But an administration official argued that the president had inherent power under Article II, Section 2, as "commander in chief of the Army and Navy," to take the nation into war, especially in self-defense.

In the context of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the official made a persuasive case that going after the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan and its Taliban protectors was such an act of self-defense. Besides, President Bush went to Congress and got a resolution of support, though narrowly crafted to authorize him to act only in response to the perpetrators of Sept. 11.

Now, however, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott is claiming an invasion of Iraq would not require congressional approval, on grounds that such action would fall within the purview of the al-Qaida resolution.

"I suspect that al-Qaida elements are in Iraq," Mr. Lott said the other day. "The resolution we passed, we made it very clear the president has the authority to pursue the al-Qaida wherever they may be found, in whatever country, which could very well include Iraq."

Efforts by administration supporters to establish some link between al-Qaida and Iraq, however, have been flimsy so far. Besides, Mr. Bush's stated rationale for attacking Iraq is entirely different - to get rid of Saddam Hussein's cache of weapons of mass destruction before he can use them against this country.

The president no doubt would justify starting such a war on grounds of self-defense. But even at that, he should be required to get authorization from the legislative branch, which is alone explicitly empowered by the Constitution to declare war.

In any event, it is clear that public opinion at last is being aroused to question why the president should be able unilaterally to initiate a war against a country that may be a threat to the United States but hasn't attacked it, and at what cost and what ramifications.

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar has it right.

"This is not an action that can be sprung on the American people," he said the other day. "Public debate over policy is important to the construction of strong public support for actions that will require great sacrifices from the American people."

If the debate inconveniences our tough-talking president, so be it.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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