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Has the US Congress Fully Debated the Iraq War? - 2003-03-18


Last month, a veteran U.S. lawmaker rebuked his colleagues for their passivity on the issue of war with Iraq. "To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. Yet this Chamber is, for the most part, silent -- ominously, dreadfully silent," said veteran Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

"There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pro's and con's of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events," he said.

Senator Byrd is one of a few senators who has voiced strong opposition to the war. His frustration goes back to a vote he called a hasty action with little debate. Last October, the Senate voted 77-to-23 in favor of a resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war with Iraq if Saddam Hussein refused to disarm. Senator Byrd warned the resolution was premature and gave the president unchecked power.

But others disagree. "I believe there has been so much discussion, so many briefings and many votes and much debate. Last October, we had 17 hours of general debate, and we authorized the direct use of force against Iraq. There is no subject that has had more contemplation and debate than this," said Republican Debra Pryce of Ohio, who voted for a similar resolution in the House of Representatives.

Whatever the viewpoint, one thing is certain -- the U.S. Constitution gives Congress strong war making authority. The governing document clearly divides war powers between Congress and the president. It gives Congress the sole power to declare war and provides that the president shall be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States.

In reality, the United States has gone to war several times without a vote by Congress. The last time a U.S. president asked Congress to declare war was after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Less than a decade later, President Harry Truman bypassed Congress to enter war with North Korea after it invaded South Korea. Using a United Nations Resolution as his authority, he said the conflict in Korea was not war but a 'police action.' Nonetheless, he didn't fulfill the presidential duty to present the case for war to Congress. Since then, analysts say presidential war power has slowly increased, while Congress has taken a backseat.

Jacob Hornberger, president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, a group that advocates limited government, said President Truman's action has led to an imbalance of power that even affects everyone. "The serviceman has a right under our form of government that before his life is put into danger, to have his elected representatives in congress make that call. By the president unconstitutionally taking that power upon himself and the congress unconstitutionally giving him that power, the American serviceman is now subject to the whims of one man, the president of the United States," he said.

In 1973, a frustrated Congress passed the War Powers Act in response to the painful and protracted Vietnam War - also undeclared. Under the new act designed to re-establish congressional war power, the president has 90 days after sending troops into harm's way to win congressional approval. But some analysts say this has done little to restore Congress's original authority. "Too many politicians, particularly career politicians, do not want the constitutional responsibility of sending troops into combat. And therefore, they defer to the president, the commander in chief on these issues in the hope that if it goes bad, they will not have to suffer the consequences. And I think that is a very unhealthy and irresponsible position," said former Democratic senator Gary Hart of Colorado.

However, in recent times some presidents have reached out to Congress to garner support for military action.

For example, when the United States went to war against Iraq in 1991, President Bush's father sought support on Capitol Hill. A resolution approving the use of force passed in a close vote of 52-to-47 after a long and heated debate. Some analysts say this vote, though not an official declaration of war, honored the spirit of the Constitution. But the president later said he would have gone to war even if the resolution had failed.

Georgetown University political scientist Thomas Melia said the elder President Bush had an easier time convincing Congress in 1991 because Iraq's occupation of Kuwait violated international law. "This time, what strikes me as interesting is that there is not more congressional opposition for what seems to be a more arguable position - this notion that one has to act preemptively to avert an imminent threat to peace. That seems to be a harder case to make. And yet there does not seem to be a larger opposition in congress now versus then," he said.

If there is a shortage of debate in Washington, plenty of it can be found elsewhere.

More than 100 parliament members of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's own Labor party voted against war with Iraq. Amid intense debate, his cabinet has called an emergency meeting yesterday. Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons, has resigned over the apparent decision to commit Britain to military action in Iraq without U.N. approval.

The Turkish parliament opposed the deployment of U.S. troops on its soil near Iraq's northern frontier. Jacob Hornberger said this is an example of a parliament keeping the national leader in check. "In Turkey, the president wanted to intervene on the side of the United States, but he said I have to go to my parliament to get this permission. And the parliament said no, and of course, the president was very upset over this, but that's the law," he said.

The apparent lack of resolve in Congress may reflect the will of the American people. Professor Melia concludes Americans are more inclined to support their president after the vulnerability they feel in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 64 percent of Americans support war with Iraq and two-thirds of them say President Bush has done a good job dealing with other countries on the Iraq issue.