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U.S.: Congress To Begin Debate On Authorizing War Against Iraq

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. Congress is set today to become formally involved in the issue of war with Iraq, as the Senate opens debate on whether to give advance approval to President George W. Bush to authorize military action. Many members of the Senate and the House of Representatives support Bush's Iraq policy, but a growing number are urging the president to consult more with the leaders of other countries before acting.

Washington, 2 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Today, the U.S. Congress is expected to begin debating two competing resolutions that would give its approval to President George W. Bush's plans for Iraq, perhaps including war.

Bush has sent to Capitol Hill his own proposal, which, if approved, would have the Senate and the House of Representatives give broad approval to take whatever action he deemed proper against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whether or not he had the support of other countries.

A bipartisan alternative has been offered that urges the Bush administration to explore all diplomatic options before resorting to military force. This proposal was drafted by Senators Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) and Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana). Biden is the chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lugar is the vice chairman of the panel.

The Senate is scheduled to begin debate on war authorization today. The House will debate the issue next week.

Meanwhile, another influential member of the Republican Party, Senator Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), made a speech urging Bush not to act alone against Iraq but to make every effort to involve other countries and the United Nations.

In Britain, meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair has agreed to a compromise on Iraq with anxious members of his Labour Party. Under the terms of a resolution approved at the party's annual conference, the British government would agree not to join in any military action against Iraq without UN authorization. Blair has been Bush's staunchest ally on the Iraq issue, and this compromise may indicate a weakening of his support of Bush.

But in an hour-long speech yesterday before his party's conference, Blair made it clear that he is still Bush's closest ally and that the blame for inaction would fall on the United Nations. "If [Saddam Hussein] doesn't comply [with the UN] then consider: If, at this moment, having found the collective will to recognize the danger, we lose our collective will to deal with it, then we will destroy not the authority of America or of Britain but of the United Nations itself."

At the White House yesterday, Bush was asked about the pressure from Congress that he work more closely with U.S. allies to deal with Iraq. He described the alternative war resolution as far less than the broad mandate he is seeking. "Why would Congress want to weaken the [Congressional] resolution [on Iraq]? This guy [Saddam Hussein] has had four years to lie, deceive, to arm up; he's had four years to thumb his nose at the world. He's stockpiling more weapons, so I'm not sure why members [of Congress] would like to weaken the resolution," Bush said.

But Bush said he expects to reach an acceptable compromise with Congress before its session ends, which is expected in about two weeks. "We'll work with the members [of Congress], and I'm confident we can get something done and we'll be speaking with one voice here in the country and that's going to be important for the United Nations to hear that voice. It is going to be important for the world to hear that voice. All of us recognize our military option is not the first choice, but disarming this man [Saddam Hussein] is," Bush said.

International-affairs analyst James Lindsay said he agrees that Bush will ultimately face little pressure from Congress or from Britain to seek UN approval, but for a different reason. Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an independent policy-research center in Washington, told RFE/RL that for now, at least, Bush is probably feeling little pressure from any quarter. "I don't think we're seeing the weakening of Mr. Blair, and I don't believe that the resolution [before Congress] that Mr. Biden and Mr. Lugar have offered imposes any real restraint on the president's authority to act," Lindsay said.

Lindsay noted a major loophole in the resolution passed by Britain's Labour Party, as outlined by Jack Straw, Blair's foreign secretary. He pointed out that Straw said the resolution does not formally require a UN Security Council resolution authorizing Britain to use force against Iraq. That, Lindsay said, is an enormous loophole.

As for the U.S. Congress, Lindsay said no amount of debate, and no amount of changes to Bush's proposed resolution authorizing war could make any difference in how Bush may eventually act against Iraq if the lawmakers give their approval to Bush now. "Congress is, from a procedural point [of view], doing its job, that is, it is going to authorize hostilities, which is really all the constitution formally requires of it. But I would argue that from a policy point of view, Congress should not be authorizing the war until it's clear what the conditions of that war will be," Lindsay said.

Lindsay argued that by approving any war-powers resolution before Bush lays out his military plans, Congress is essentially giving the president a free hand to do as he pleases, when he pleases, with no restrictions.

Bush told the UN General Assembly on 12 September that it must take concrete action to enforce the resolutions of its own Security Council, which Hussein is flouting. In particular, Bush said, Hussein is continuing to pursue nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and since 1998 has refused to readmit UN inspectors whose job is to find such weapons programs and dismantle them.

Bush said that if the United Nations does not enforce its own resolutions, the United States will do so on its own. He argued that Iraq poses an imminent threat to the entire Middle East, to the United States, and to the world.

At first, many UN member states indicated their willingness to support action against Iraq. But five days after Bush's speech, Saddam announced that he was ready to accept inspectors again unconditionally. Immediately, other countries said they wanted to await the results of the inspections before considering further action.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, has been trying to persuade other states, particularly France and Russia, which have veto power in the UN Security Council, to support a resolution that reportedly would require Iraq to submit all suspect sites to inspections, including eight compounds that Iraq refers to as "presidential palaces." Under current UN rules, those "palaces" are not subject to inspections. The proposed U.S.-backed resolution also reportedly would include a threat of military force if Iraq does not comply.

In Vienna yesterday, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, said he reached a tentative agreement with the government of Iraq for the inspection regime to resume. Blix said he was assured that his staff would have complete access to all sites but the presidential palaces.

The Bush administration says it suspects that these compounds are sites where Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction, and it wants the Security Council to pass a new resolution that would submit them to inspections as well.

Furthermore, according to Bush, the issue is not the readmission of the inspections but the disarming of Iraq. He says Iraq has previously interfered with Blix's staff, and there is no reason to believe it will not do so again.

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