Declaring War on Iraq

“The Congress shall have Power … to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” — United States Constitution.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and demolished a wing of the Pentagon, the moral authority to take military action to stop those responsible from future attacks was clear. Sure, there were a few of the “Blame America First” temperament, who wanted to know what the US did to make these terrorists hate us. Fortunately, the voices of those who habitually make excuses for mass murders were few and isolated. The moral authority to respond to the terrorists was quickly followed by the legal authority to do so.

On September 18, 2002 only seven days after the attack, Congress passed the joint “Authorization for Use of Military Force” resolution. The resolution gave direct authority for the president to act militarily. Specifically, Congress resolved:

“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

The Al Queda organization hosted by the Taliban in Afghanistan was quickly identified as the proximate group responsible for seizing the planes and turning them into weapons. The US government requested that the Taliban hand over the Al Queda leaders. When the Taliban refused to cooperate, it demonstrated its complicity with attacks on the US. The original “Authorization for Use of Military Force” resolution clearly sanctioned the subsequent US military defeat of the Taliban.

Nine months after September 11, the case for attacking Iraq is not nearly so clear. For a while, there was the suspicion that Iraq may have cooperated and directly helped the Al Queda. While this may indeed be the case, the public evidence for this is not clear. As a consequence, the authorization given by Congress for action may not be sufficient to cover efforts to militarily overthrow the Baghdad regime.

It is very possible and perhaps probable that Iraq is providing critical aid and funding to a loose-network of anti-US terrorist groups. It is very conceivable that Iraq, who has used weapons of mass destruction against its own people, is sufficiently malicious to provide some of these weapons to terrorist groups willing to use them against the American homeland. The case to attack Iraq as a necessary measure to preempt a future attacks on the US may be strong and compelling, but it has not been made publicly.

Presidents sometimes see Congress as an unfortunate impediment to the efficient execution of foreign policy and sometimes it is. On occasion, representatives and senators act like 535 secretaries of state raising a cacophonous din, confusing allies and adversaries alike. Nonetheless, a premeditated attack to depose the government of a sovereign state, months, or perhaps years after provocations is war and ought to be declared so by Congress.

President George Bush can probably stretch the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” resolution to authorize an attack against Iraq without much public objection. It is not to his benefit to do so. Asking Congress for additional authorization will impose an important discipline. It will force Bush to unambiguously articulate the rationale for military action against Iraq. It will force Bush to clearly define objectives and measures of success. It will also compel Congress to affirm Bush’s judgment in a way that will unite the country and make it difficult for others to second-guess Bush later.

There is a legitimate concern that in articulating and describing the perceived threats from Iraq, important intelligence and means of collecting intelligence might be compromised. However, the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress are capable of dealing with secret information and reporting summary findings to the remainder of Congress.

Countries that boast rule by consent of the governed should not easily shed their ideals under serious challenges. Returning to Congress for additional authorization to attack Iraq will be a difficult challenge for Bush’s leadership. However, by engaging Congress Bush will provide an important precedent for future Presidents contemplating military action. Indeed, such a precedent may prove to be an important Bush legacy.

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