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Iraq: U.S. Congress Urges Consultations On Plans For Possible War

Many members of the U.S. Congress -- including those from President George W. Bush's Republican Party -- are urging Bush to consult with them over any plans he may have to make war on Iraq. At issue is whether Bush is required to win congressional approval for a war, or whether it is simply politically advantageous for him to do so.

Washington, 22 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush says it will consult with Congress if it decides that it must mount a military offensive against Iraq.

Members of the House of Representatives and Senate -- including a growing number from Bush's Republican Party -- have said it would be politically unwise for Bush not to consult with Congress.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans hearings on the question before Congress recesses for the month of August. Its counterpart in the House -- the International Relations Committee -- plans similar hearings when Congress reconvenes in September.

Bush has declared Iraq part of an "axis of evil" and accuses Baghdad of developing weapons of mass destruction. Bush has said his administration will use "all tools at its disposal" to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.

On 19 July, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration already is consulting quietly with congressional leaders, and is prepared to do so publicly, at the House and Senate hearings. But Boucher stressed that Bush has made no specific decisions on how to deal with Iraq. "The president hasn't decided on any particular options with how we should deal with that problem of danger posed by Iraq. That is an issue and a discussion that we certainly do believe that members of Congress should be involved in, and I'm sure they'll find various ways of doing that."

At issue is just how much of a role Congress must play in committing America's armed forces to war. According to the U.S. Constitution, the president is designated as the commander in chief of the country's military. And Congress has the right to declare war. And yet there appear to be no clear and precise rules governing the use of U.S. forces in armed conflict.

Roger Pilon is the director of constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington, D.C. Pilon pointed out to RFE/RL that the United States has seldom resorted to formal declarations of war. He says that is fortunate, because a U.S. president empowered by a declaration of war can wield more influence than may be appropriate in a democracy. As an example, he cited the detention of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

"One wants to be careful about declarations of war because a nation in a state of war, under a declaration of war, can be a very dangerous thing. Courts tend to be more deferential to the executive branch [the presidency and the cabinet] when it engages in actions like incarcerating American Japanese citizens [American citizens of Japanese descent] in World War II. So one wants to be careful [about] what one asks for because one might get it."

According to Pilon, the U.S. Constitution is unclear about the role of Congress in waging war. He says he interprets the document as giving the president the right to start hostilities without congressional approval. Apparently, Pilon says, the Supreme Court has made the same interpretation over the years, because never has it issued a ruling challenging the president's unilateral war-making powers.

"The court has been very reluctant to get into questions of that kind. It has tended to prefer to leave it as a political matter. And part of the reason is because the constitution is itself unclear on the point. Congress has the power to declare war. That's not the same as saying that it must declare war before the president can act."

But Pilon says war is a very political act taken against a foreign enemy -- and therefore must follow political rules at home. In other words, he says, Congress must be admitted into the decision-making process, at least to demonstrate to the American people that their concerns are being respected through negotiations with their elected representatives.

Pilon says this also gives the president an opportunity to share the blame if the war does not go well.

Nathan Brown agrees. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Brown told RFE/RL that the political considerations of waging war on Iraq are even greater for Bush now than they were for his father, President George Bush, a decade ago.

At that time, Brown says, the elder Bush led a coalition of countries that was acting under a United Nations mandate to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Now, he says, Saddam has committed no overtly hostile act against another country. Saddam has, however, repeatedly refused to admit UN-mandated inspectors into the country to determine whether he is trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"Politically, the situation is a little bit different [today] because there was fairly strong support for action, as I remember, in 1991. And this time, my guess is, the American position is just sort of a little bit more amorphous. Then [before the Gulf War], there was a very dramatic action -- a country disappeared from the face of the Earth. This time, it's more [a] settling of accounts that are 10 years old."

According to Brown, Bush not only must convince the American people that a war against Iraq is necessary, he must convince the rest of the world, including the Muslim community and America's allies in Europe.

Bush has said repeatedly that the current war against terrorism in Afghanistan is not a war against the Afghan people or against Muslims in general. Muslims, however, remain suspicious of Bush's intentions, particularly regarding Iraq. Brown says even the most thorough articulation of Bush's policies in a dialogue with Congress would not win their advance approval of a war against Iraq.

Brown says the biggest concern in Muslim countries is whether their governments could be destabilized by the populations' negative reaction to a long and bloody war in Iraq. But the quick demise of the Taliban in Afghanistan shows that complaints about the United States could subside rapidly if any military action against Iraq is similarly brief.

"A very quick change of regime would have a very different effect, as we saw in Afghanistan. There was an awful lot of hand-wringing in the Muslim world, saying, after 11 September, 'What is the United States doing bombing one of the poorest countries on Earth?' But that sort of criticism sort of disappeared the second the Taliban regime in Afghanistan fell."

Brown says convincing America's European allies of the need to strike against Iraq may be more difficult. Many European leaders have accused Bush of acting unilaterally in the knowledge that the United States is the world's only superpower. And many European companies wish to pursue commercial ties with Baghdad because of its oil wealth.

According to Brown, dialogue about Iraq between the Bush administration and Congress will mean little to Europe and will probably seem too domestically oriented. What Europeans want is for the Bush administration to have a deeper dialogue with them about Iraq. Only then, he said, can they be convinced.