Power to declare

October 14, 2007

Five years ago, Congress passed the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq," which was a way of passing the buck to President Bush in an election season and letting him decide whether to launch an invasion. Ever since then, events have confirmed the wisdom of the authors of the Constitution, who wrote that Congress shall have the power to declare war. It's time to bring Article I, Section 8 back into force.

It's worth rereading the actual authorization, to see what's wrong with it. There is some verbiage but not an overwhelming amount on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. There is quite a lot about 9/11 and the threat of terrorism posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. One clause argues that the risk of a surprise attack on the U.S. justifies "action by the United States to defend itself."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted in favor of the authorization, argues that her goal at the time was to help bring pressure on Iraq, and that it was not a vote to go to war. She's right about that; it was a vote to let the White House take America to war. But the responsibility for war belongs on Capitol Hill, and Americans should expect their representatives and senators to face up to it - and be held to account for it.

There were plenty of objections to the authorization at the time. What was the nature of the Iraqi threat? Was the U.S. staring at a quagmire? If a campaign to oust Mr. Hussein were to succeed, this page asked, "how would the United States proceed in a leaderless Iraq?"

Those were all good questions - better, as it turned out, than some of the doubters realized at the time - and it would have been appropriate and healthy to give them due consideration. But they were swept aside in the desire to look tough and let someone else take the heat and move on to something more politically advantageous. Also swept aside was Sen. Robert C. Byrd's lonely invocation of the rights and responsibilities spelled out in the 214-year-old Constitution.

Now, the Bush administration is girding for a fight with Iran. Under some circumstances, it could presumably be launched under the aegis of the 5-year-old Iraq authorization, even though none of the conditions spelled out in that authorization exists today.

This is the moment for Congress to insist that any future military adventure should be undertaken only with a declaration of war. The presidential candidates should affirm that stand, as well - and we imagine that with the criticism she has garnered over the ambiguous and reckless 2002 authorization, Mrs. Clinton would be only too happy to take the lead.

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