Congress should remember lessons of Tonkin

September 23, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- If the late Democratic Sens. Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon could somehow read President Bush's proposed war resolution against Iraq, they'd undoubtedly spin in their graves.

Mr. Morse and Mr. Gruening were the only two senators who voted in August 1964 against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to wage war against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in Indochina in the midst of LBJ's re-election campaign. They spent the rest of their political careers saying "I told you so" as President Johnson pulled out all the military stops and matters in Vietnam went from bad to worse.

While the language of Mr. Bush's resolution and the circumstances of the present situation are not identical, there are enough similarities to warrant comparison. Mr. Bush's resolution pushes Congress to authorize him "to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force," to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions and "defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq."

LBJ also got Congress to authorize "all necessary measures" he might take "to repel any armed attack" against American forces and "to prevent any further aggression." The difference in that case was that there was at least a reported armed attack on U.S. forces, though the accuracy of the report was questioned long after.

When reports reached President Johnson that torpedo-armed North Vietnamese patrol boats had attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, American aircraft struck back at North Vietnamese naval bases. He swiftly asked for and got the open-ended congressional authorization.

The difference between then and now, when pre-emptive force is being contemplated, was that reported attack, and the fact that the United States had long been engaged militarily against the enemy.

LBJ's subsequent huge escalation of the American commitment in Vietnam, made possible by the Tonkin resolution without further recourse from Congress, caused major second thoughts on Capitol Hill thereafter. It was instrumental in the passage in 1973 of the War Powers Resolution, stipulating that while a president may commit forces on his own in a crisis, after 60 to 90 days he must go to Congress to continue to engage those forces.

Quite obviously, the War Powers Resolution has been honored in the breach by later presidents, who have challenged its constitutionality without risking a test of it. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush finally did go to Congress for approval to reverse Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In that case also, the United States responded to an attack, as opposed to the sort of pre-emptive military action contemplated by his son.

Even in the emotional aftermath of Sept. 11, when Congress quickly authorized the junior President Bush to respond militarily, the influence of the Tonkin resolution experience was clearly seen. Care was taken by the congressional drafters to limit any response specifically to the perpetrators of the New York and Pentagon attacks and those who might have "planned, authorized, committed or aided (or) harbored" them. The resolution also specifically noted that "nothing in this resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution."

The question now is whether Congress will swallow another open-ended authorization like the Tonkin resolution, even in the face of widespread public and some congressional reservations about initiating a war against Iraq without more overt provocation than longstanding U.N. violations and Mr. Bush's sense of urgency, unsupported by evidence of any imminent threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Notably, the president in his proposed resolution once again shifted his justification for action now by suggesting for the first time the danger of a direct Iraqi attack on the United States. He warned of "the high risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ" weapons of mass destruction "to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its armed forces" or, as he has said before, possibly provide them to "international terrorists."

If the peril is as direct and imminent as Mr. Bush says, he should back up his doomsday fears by providing concrete intelligence to congressional leaders. Otherwise, he should encounter resistance in his call for the kind of blank check Congress gave LBJ nearly 40 years ago, and later regretted. But don't bet on it.

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

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