Congress would be wise to go slow on Iraq

W By Mark Dayton

what a difference an administration makes. Congressional leaders who are hurrying votes on Iraq had very different views when the president was a Democrat named Bill Clinton. They made more sense back then.

After Saddam Hussein bounced U.N. inspectors in January 1998, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said on Feb. 12, “I had hoped that we could get to the point where we could pass a resolution this week on Iraq. But we really developed some physical problems, if nothing else. … So we have decided that the most important thing is not to move so quickly, but to make sure that we have had all the right questions asked and answered and that we have available to us the latest information about what is … happening with our allies in the world.

“The Senate is known for its deliberate actions. And the longer I stay in the Senate, the more I have learned to appreciate it. It does help to give us time to think about the potential problems and the risks and the ramifications and to, frankly, press the administration.”

The Republican-controlled Senate took five more months to pass a resolution that year, and it did not authorize President Clinton to use military force. After Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Senate also deliberated five months before authorizing what became the Persian Gulf War.

Yet now Congress is being rushed to preapprove whatever President George W. Bush decides to do, which includes something no president has done before: Start a war. According to researchers at the Library of Congress, the United States has never in its 213-year history launched a pre-emptive attack against another country.


During the past 50 years, our leaders have confronted dangerous dictators who possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet they protected our country and the planet by preventing war, not by starting one. Some members of Congress and the administration are now demanding that we rush to vote so that we can rush to war. Such haste is unnecessary, reckless and foolish.

For some of my colleagues, it seems a quick and easy decision to wave the flag, denounce an evil dictator and launch our military might. But war seldom is quick or easy. We know that the United States would defeat Iraq and depose Hussein. But we don’t know the cost in bloodshed, destruction and subsequent occupation. And we don’t know the consequences of violating our national principle of not starting wars.

That principle, which has earned us enormous respect throughout the world, is the cornerstone of international stability. As the world’s superpower, we set the standards for international conduct. We lead by our deeds. When we lead the world by our diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflicts, we make it more secure.

But if we attacked another country because it might threaten our national security, how could we dissuade others from doing the same? If nations that have nuclear weapons or that are developing them fear a pre-emptive strike, what might their responses be? Would the world be more or less secure?

The profound consequences of these decisions are compelling reasons to make them as carefully as possible. I believe that the president is right about the need to disarm Hussein before he obtains nuclear weapons and the ability to use them against us. But that threat does not appear to exist today or within the next few months. For now, the president is withholding his decision about U.S. military action. Congress should do the same, but instead it’s, “Vote quick, pass the buck, head for home and wish ’em luck.”

This rush to vote is being driven more by political expediency than by military necessity. Gaining political advantage in a midterm election is a shameful reason to hurry decisions of this magnitude. If the president needs Congress to support his resolve never to let Hussein threaten our nation with weapons of mass destruction, we can pass such a resolution tomorrow. If the United Nations fails to exact Iraq’s compliance with its previous restrictions, this Congress or its successor can convene at any time to authorize the appropriate U.S. military response.

That is what the Constitution intends when it authorizes Congress, and only Congress, to declare war. This would be an especially good time for Congress to do it right.

Mark Dayton is a Democratic U.S. Senator for Minnesota. This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]