Checks and balances

September 22, 2002

CONGRESS SHOULD not be resolutely marching to George W. Bush's war drum. But the favorable response of House and Senate leaders to the president's sweeping request for unlimited power to act against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein suggests that's just what they are doing.

Congress should be asking more questions, not fewer. It should be insisting on answers to the tough questions so far ignored by the president and his war Cabinet.

To do anything less is irresponsible, given the consequences for thousands of American soldiers, the United States' relations with its allies and the political landscape of the Middle East.

Members of Congress are acting as though they have a hard and fast deadline to act, but the November elections should not be the impetus for a speedy vote on Mr. Bush's request for maximum flexibility to remove the Iraqi dictator and his purported cache of weapons of mass destruction. The upcoming campaign provides congressional candidates with the opportunity to assess the feelings of voters and return to Washington prepared to carry out their wishes. That would be the responsible way to proceed, instead of rushing to return home with a proxy for war in hand. Only the candidates benefit in the latter scenario.

Mr. Bush's forceful address to the United Nations a week ago set the stage for diplomacy to settle this standoff with the Iraqi dictator. The president urged the General Assembly to act against Mr. Hussein for his pursuit of biological and chemical weapons in defiance of a decade of U.N. resolutions.

Iraq's response - an invitation to return U.N. weapons inspectors to Baghdad - has been dismissed by many as a clever ploy to isolate the United States and thwart an attack. A congressional resolution supporting Mr. Bush certainly would bolster U.S. efforts to set a Security Council deadline for the inspections review and the consequences of Iraqi interference with the inspectors' work. But apparently Mr. Bush is committed to act, with or without U.N. support.

And that makes the content of any resolution as critical as its passage.

The Bush proposal presented to Congress is unduly broad - it goes beyond the 1991 resolution enacted before the Persian Gulf war. And it is uncomfortably ominous. If Iraq is the target, then Congress must ensure that American troops aren't used to settle other scores in the region. When the president requests authority "to use all means" to enforce U.N. resolutions against Iraq, what is his intention? Mr. Bush doesn't want to have to return to Congress or the U.N. for approval of a resolution. Why not?

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has said Congress doesn't want to be "a rubber stamp."

Then, senator, don't let it be.

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