WASHINGTON—Talk about a sure bet.
When it comes to resolutions authorizing the use of force, no Congress in the post-World War II era has ever denied a president's wishes. This week's congressional votes on President Bush's Iraq resolution will keep the streak alive.
But lawmakers are seldom eager for these votes. And many of those who will support the president will vote with a sense of frustration and deep misgivings, if not anger, about where he is leading them.
Some lawmakers complain that Bush has staked out such a warlike pose in his negotiations with Congress and the United Nations that defying him or diluting his proposed resolution would weaken the United States in the eyes of the world.
"The president has handcuffed us," said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. "I'm voting yes on this resolution . . . because I think ultimately the box the president has put us in has forced us to vote in the interest of national security."
The president is seeking unprecedented authority. The resolution landed at Congress' doorstep just as the Bush administration announced a new policy of pre-emptive military action that buried the containment policies of the Cold War. Under Bush's new doctrine, the United States asserts the right to attack potential enemies even before they pose an imminent threat.
"It's a real Hobson's choice, more especially in this new doctrine of pre-emption," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. He said he would vote for the president's resolution despite a number of reservations about the consequences of war.
"It calls for a total different outlook in regards to national security policy, military tactics and foreign policy," Roberts said of the pre-emptive strike doctrine. "And we're not there yet."
When the votes are counted in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the president's resolution will have passed overwhelmingly. At least 80 of 100 senators have indicated they will vote with the president.
Bush won this wide backing in the face of deep reservations about the justification for war and its possible consequences by capitalizing on three things. His bully pulpit as commander in chief, lingering post-Sept. 11 terrorism fears and the approaching congressional elections, which could decide which party controls the House and Senate, all were factors. He also entered the fray with two advantages—unanimous congressional disdain for Saddam Hussein and a war on terrorism that was already under way.
With all that wind at his back, the president sought a resolution that would give him, in the words of his aides, "maximum flexibility." The White House rejected any legal or political obstacle that would tie his hands. Bush's negotiators turned aside suggestions from senior foreign-policy experts in Congress that would have made the resolution less blunt.
"That's his technique and his style—like a bulldozer," said Stephen Hess, a former speechwriter for President Eisenhower, who twice won use-of-force resolutions from Congress in the 1950s. "Bush makes fun of nuance. He is not the nuance president. In this particular case it's very, very effective; the fact that he presents his case, weak as it well may be, without doubt."
The tactic is working, even though it grates on his reluctant backers. "The president has a style that some of us don't think is helpful in foreign policy," said Rep. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who said he would support the resolution. "His style is one of pretty strong statements, and the view that international support is not necessary."
Rep. Tom Tancredo, a conservative Colorado Republican, summed up the quandary many of his colleagues are in as he prepared to vote this past week on the resolution in the House International Relations Committee.
"I am still conflicted," he said. "There is no one who can say what will happen in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is gone. I worry about the establishment of a first-strike precedent. . . . It's scary stuff. The action we are about to take in Iraq will also ratchet up the incredible danger we face here in the United States."
"All that," he said, "is juxtaposed against this: Do you believe in the veracity of the president of the United States?"
The next day, Tancredo voted for the resolution.
Bush also has the momentum of history on his side. Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all obtained authorizations from Congress to use military force.
Adams wanted to protect American shipping from French attacks in the 1790s. Jefferson obtained permission in 1802 to use the Navy against Tripoli (present-day Libya) to protect U.S. shipping from pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. And Madison, after signing a treaty with England that ended the War of 1812, sought the right to take action against Algerian ships that had been harassing merchant shipping in the Mediterranean.
Post-World War II resolutions laid the foundation for Bush's action. Eisenhower obtained congressional support for a resolution to use force to protect Taiwan from China in 1955. Like Bush now, Eisenhower did not think the United States should wait for the United Nations to act.
In 1957, Congress gave Eisenhower the right to use military force in the Middle East to "assist any such nation or group of such nations requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism." Eisenhower stressed that he would not use force "except at the desire of the nation attacked," and he never invoked the power.
That changed in 1964, when President Johnson obtained overwhelming support from Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which he used to escalate the war in Vietnam, which cost more than 55,000 American lives.
Several lawmakers have compared Bush's resolution to its Gulf of Tonkin predecessor. Johnson's resolution, which authorized force anywhere in Southeast Asia to contain communist aggression, came in August, shortly before an election. The public was still feeling solemn and patriotic after the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, not unlike the current, post-Sept. 11 national mood. Only two senators voted against it—Democrats Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska.
Critics of Bush's desire for "maximum flexibility" say his resolution could lead to broad interpretation and, like Johnson's, be used to justify a questionable war much larger than anticipated. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Johnson later said, was "like grandma's nightshirt—it covered everything."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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