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U.S.: Congress Likely to Play Key Role In Determining Action Against Iraq

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush has invited congressional leaders to the White House today to discuss his administration's policy toward Iraq. Bush says he will consult with Congress about what action to take against Saddam Hussein, whom the administration accuses of developing weapons of mass destruction. Some analysts say Congress may play a key role in determining whether to wage war against Iraq.

Washington, 4 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress returned to Washington this week from its August recess facing the question of what action to take against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom the U.S. suspects of developing weapons of mass destruction.

The Senate and House of Representatives have less than five weeks in session before adjourning to prepare for congressional elections in early November. Of the nearly year's worth of legislation they must tackle in that time, perhaps the most significant is the question of how to deal with the determination of U.S. President George W. Bush to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Senate minority (Republican, Mississippi) leader Trent Lott, speaking yesterday, said the time has come for clear action on Iraq: "Regime change [in Iraq] is something that has been called for, and I think Congress would support that. Throughout three administrations now we've been having to deal with this problem, and we're going to probably have to deal with it again."

Bush has said military force is not the only option for achieving regime change in Baghdad, but the U.S. administration's stance on Iraq has appeared unclear in recent weeks. Part of the problem may be opposition, both within the U.S. and among its international allies, to a military campaign against Iraq.

In Europe, even strong U.S. allies like Britain have stopped short of offering unconditional support for a U.S.-led military strike, saying that while Saddam Hussein presents a clear threat, any military action should first be approved by the United Nations. Other governments -- from Germany to Russia -- flatly oppose the proposed U.S. action.

In the United States, opinion polls suggest that public support is waning for the use of military force against Iraq. Caution has even spread to high-ranking members of Bush's own Republican Party, including Richard Lugar, the vice chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Hagel, another senator with strong foreign-policy credentials.

Bush at first appeared willing to proceed with plans for a military campaign against Baghdad without seeking congressional approval. But growing antiwar sentiment seems to have tempered, at least slightly, the administration's enthusiasm for a military campaign, and cleared the floor for public debate.

Many members of Congress have welcomed the change. Republican Senator John McCain was cited in "The New York Times" as saying: "I believe technically the president is not required to come to Congress; politically, I believe it would be foolish not to."

Senate majority (Democrat) leader Tom Daschle yesterday pressed for debate on Iraq to extend past the Congress to include U.S. allies abroad: "There would be a huge price to be paid were we to act unilaterally and especially if it is against the wishes of virtually every one of our allies around the world."

Daschle also compared the current situation to the one faced by President George Bush in 1991, when the U.S. led an armed coalition to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait -- but with the expressed approval of the UN:

"President [George W. Bush's] father did just that -- he went to the United Nations, he went to the Security Council, and he was successful and I think it made all the difference. I don't know that it's absolutely necessary here, but I think a very, very good case could be made that unless that happens, we are going to alienate the very allies we need to fight the war on terror."

The 1991 campaign ended in a conditional cease-fire that left Iraq under a strict sanctions regime and allowed the admission of UN inspectors to find and destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. But the inspectors have been barred from re-entering Iraq for the past four years -- a gap the Bush administration says has allowed Saddam to resume the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Iraq denies the charges, but has not cleared the way for resumed UN weapons inspections.

Because Saddam has repeatedly violated the terms of the 1991 cease-fire, the United States technically could resume the hostilities. But the fighting ended so long ago that the reasons for resuming war may seem remote to many Americans.

The Bush administration itself seems far from resolving an internal debate over Iraq, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell appearing to contradict each other over the importance of resuming UN weapons inspections.

Nathan Brown -- a professor of political science and international affairs at Washington's George Washington University -- says the only consistent aspect of Bush's Iraq policy so far is that Saddam must be removed from power. As for why and how, Brown tells RFE/RL, the administration's public statements are unclear at best and contradictory at worst.

"They've laid out different kinds of rationales -- some involving terrorism, some involving weapons of mass destruction, some involving regional questions. And it's not clear what means can be viewed as legitimate to use [in accomplishing that]."

Brown says it is this inconsistency that stands between Bush and the approval he seeks from Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings a month ago to hear experts outside of the Bush administration share their views on whether, and how, the United States might wage war on Iraq. The committee plans to resume those hearings later this month. Members of the Bush administration likely will be invited to testify.

Brown says that if these witnesses can give clear goals, reasons and methods for ousting Saddam, both the Senate and the House will almost certainly approve resolutions supporting the president's plans:

"Congress has never stood up to a forceful president who wanted authorization for something like this. So what [Bush administration officials] really have to do is decide what they want to do, and the Congress will get out of the way and be happy to have Bush take all the credit or the blame."

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican member of the House, agrees. He says this month's Senate hearings will be crucial for Bush in seeking congressional approval. Frenzel tells RFE/RL that the hearings will also be important for Congress in deciding whether to give that approval.

"That will be an enormously important set of hearings for the Congress, which is probably going to take its cues from what it learns at that time. My own judgment is that we're a long way from doing anything in Iraq, primarily because the president has not convinced the people of the Congress that it is time to move there."

Frenzel -- now an analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank -- says the Bush administration has been too preoccupied enacting foreign policy to take time to adequately explain the policy to the American people. Previous presidents, he says, have eventually realized that they must make their cases public before taking drastic action, like war. Frenzel says he believes Bush realizes that now, too.

Frenzel adds that Bush and his top aides probably believed the country's strong sense of unity following the 11 September attacks would automatically extend to a military campaign against Iraq. That, he says, was a major miscalculation by the administration: "[The administration] probably presumed that it had greater license than it had from the public to proceed. But the American public is a quirky sort, and it wants to know about everything at all times, and so the president is just going to have to [outline his plans on Iraq] now."

Bush's top diplomatic and military officials -- Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- are almost certain to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month.

Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, says that it is not merely politically advantageous for a president to make his case to Congress before going to war. He tells RFE/RL that doing so also makes a president focus his thoughts better so that whatever action he takes will be better conceived:

"It's so essential that [Bush comes] to Congress, because in doing so he forces himself to undergo the discipline of outlining what he wants to do, and why he wants to do it, and committing himself to those things publicly."

According to Sabato, clear and candid testimony from Cabinet members like Powell and Rumsfeld -- as well as a speech to the nation by Bush himself outlining his intentions -- could go a long way toward ensuring that any action taken by the administration will be appropriate. Sabato cited the words of Senator Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he opened the first round of hearings in July.

At that time, Biden said he believed it would be important for Congress to explore all aspects of U.S-Iraqi relations. That way, he said, if there is military action, the administration will be acting with what he called "the informed consent of the American people."

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