Congress must approve of action in Iraq

As President George W. Bush and several of his cabinet members have been preparing the country for likely action against Iraq, criticism of the administration has increased domestically. While the White House legal counsel has assured Bush the administration would not act illegally if it initiated military action against Iraq without a prior congressional declaration, others have offered dissenting opinions, stating that the only proper way to instigate a military conflict would be through a formal vote. Even as the president seems inattentive to oppositions from other heads of state, he has recently stated that he will consult with Congress about his plans. However, it is important for Congress to formally approve of any action against Iraq, and that Bush explicitly commits to such a vote.

Bush met with a delegation of congressional leaders Wednesday, as roughly 20 accepted his invitation to the White House. Most involved with the meeting were responsive, although the general consensus was that Bush needed to allow Congress time to decide. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., stated Congress needs “whatever it takes” to decide, whether that is “a week, two weeks, a month or longer.” The Senate’s Republican leader, Trent Lott, RñMiss., agreed, saying the deliberations could “take a little longer than just two or three weeks.”

Earlier this week, both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney met with a delegation of Senate leaders at the Department of Defense. However, both Rumsfeld and Cheney were also less than explicit about what the true nature of Congress’ role would be, and only suggested that the legislative branch would be involved. Again, though, the administration must explicitly and clearly endorse a formal congressional vote on any military activity in Iraq.

According to most generally accepted interpretations of the Constitution, Congress has exclusive authority to declare war or authorize use of the military. This authority was further reinforced by the 1973 War Powers Act, passed by Congress despite President Richard Nixon’s veto. The act was created to prevent presidents from unofficially going to war without first consulting with the legislative branch, as had been enacted twice during the previous 20 years. In 1950, President Harry S. Truman initiated military action against North Korea without securing Congressional approval and characterized the military campaign as a “police action.” In the early 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson sought and received a Congressional resolution authorizing the protection of “military advisors” in Vietnam.

Bush’s father has established a recent precedent for the necessity of Congress’ approval of military action. In 1991, responding to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Bush sought and received Congressional approval. And although there have been several recent examples of a president using military force without securing the approval of Congress, most of these incidents were of a significantly smaller scale than what is expected in Iraq. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered the military to invade Grenada after Marxists took over the government, only briefing leaders the night before the invasion. In 1989, Bush ordered the military to invade Panama, also briefing congressional leaders the night before, to depose Manuel Noriega. And in 1999 President Bill Clinton authorized the use of American forces in a NATO campaign in Kosovo without any consultation.

These examples illustrate the frequency with which presidents have evaded Congress while beginning military campaigns. Bush previously requested a formal approval to begin the war on terrorism shortly after Sept. 11. Although his legal counsel informs him that previous approval is sufficient to justify attacking Iraq, Bush should understand that such an attack was not then a consideration. When presidents acquire congressional approval for a certain military response, it is not approval to begin any wars throughout their terms. And while previous presidents have used the military without approval, any military campaign in Iraq is expected to be significantly larger. Congress has the sole constitutional authority, as well as the necessary precedents, to decide upon the military’s response to Iraq, and President Bush should explicitly commit to this.