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Congress should reject Bush's open-ended request

By Lorenzo Sadun


Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Once upon a time, the leader of a Great Power was worried about another country's rapid military buildup. The Great Power's commander-in-chief argued that this buildup was a threat to his country's national security and had to be stopped at all costs. The two countries were officially at peace, and the commander-in-chief knew that the world would not support an attack. He prepared to strike anyway, at the time and place he deemed most advantageous.

The Great Power was Japan, the time was Dec. 7, 1941, and the place was Pearl Harbor. The commander-in-chief, Gen. Tojo, is rightly remembered as a war criminal.

To his credit, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not respond in kind. Before committing U.S. troops to any offensive action, he went before a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. It was immediately granted. Several days later, Congress declared war on Germany and Italy. Even after thousands of Americans had been killed, our entry into World War II required a declaration.

Through most of our history, the distinction between war and piracy was clear. Military action against a declared enemy was war. An unsanctioned attack on a sovereign state was piracy. War could be honorable, but piracy was criminal. The president, as commander-in-chief, had full authority to conduct war, but he could not order the U.S. military to commit piracy.

The Constitution of the United States is a wonderful system of checks and balances. It is up to the executive branch to enforce our laws, but only after Congress has passed them. Likewise, it is up to the commander-in-chief to conduct a war, but only after Congress has declared it.

In the nuclear age, war-making authority has gradually shifted to the president. There have been no American declarations of war since December 1941, but this has not kept a succession of presidents, of both parties, from sending troops to kill and die.

President Truman took the first step. He did not ask Congress to declare war over Korea, but instead argued that the Senate's ratification of the U.N. Charter gave him authority to join in a "United Nations police action." The Korean War wasn't really a war, you see. Likewise, Presidents Johnson and Nixon used the vaguely worded Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as legal justification for the Vietnam War. The first President Bush threatened to fight the Gulf War without any congressional authorization; a showdown was avoided only when Congress gave its assent to Operation Desert Storm. Each time, the president claimed more authority than the time before, and each time Congress backed down, fearing that dissent would undermine American unity. Instead, quiet acquiescence undermined the Constitution.

Presidents Truman through Bush (41) poked holes in the Constitution. Now President George W. Bush is attempting to shred it altogether. Instead of asking Congress for a declaration of war on Iraq, or even for authorization to fight a war, he is insisting on receiving open-ended authority to decide whether a war is to be fought at all. In other words, he demands precisely the power that the Constitution reserves for Congress.

I offer no opinion on whether war with Iraq is necessary or not. The public has not seen the secret intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, and without that information it is impossible to balance the risks of action against those of inaction. I also offer no opinion on whether the decision to go (or not go) to war should depend more on continuing diplomacy or on lessons learned from Hussein's past behavior; there are strong arguments both ways. I merely insist, as a citizen, that any decision be made carefully and legally, in accordance with our Constitution and with time-honored standards of decency.

Regardless of how they feel about Iraq, our representatives in Congress must summon the courage to refuse President Bush's request. They must hold our president to his oath of office, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. In attempting to replace dictatorship with democracy in Baghdad, we must not replace democracy with dictatorship in Washington.

Sadun is associate professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin


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