FOR THE LAST SIX MONTHS, Congressional Democrats have carried on their War on Terror dog-and-pony show. Officially, they are 100 percent behind the war, loyal to the President, committed to seeing America through nothing short of total victory. Unofficially, as evidenced every Sunday morning on the talk-show circuit, their unconditional support is tethered to conditional millstones — foreign approval, a preset timeline, minimal risk, and so on — conditions that threaten to sink the very enterprise.
It’s time for President George W. Bush to call their bluff.
The Democrats' latest anti-war obstruction is their demand, voiced recently by a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for a Congressional pre-approval of an invasion of Iraq. Before the Administration begins the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Democrats want the opportunity to grant or withhold their blessing.
As a matter of strategic and electoral policy, Bush ought to let them have it. The authority the Democrats crave would come with the accountability they have diligently dodged. Forced to take a definitive stand for or against the war's next phase, their dog-and-pony show would necessarily come to an end.
It’s true, as White House lawyers have concluded, the President does not legally need Congressional approval for an invasion of Iraq. His father got that for him in 1991 in the form of a resolution authorizing the Gulf War. The resolution included demands that Iraq eliminate weapons of mass destruction and grant U.N. inspectors unfettered access to its facilities. Because Hussein has never lived up to those obligations, that authorization remains in effect.
Further emboldening the President’s position is the resolution Congress passed last Sept. 14 — on a 98 to 0 vote in the Senate and 420 to 1 in the House — authorizing the President to retaliate in any way necessary for the 9/11 attacks. That resolution is the legal pretext for the War on Terror, of which an invasion of Iraq is the next critical step.
But while getting Congressional approval may not be constitutionally necessary, it would be a good way for Bush both to build up public support and, finally, to silence Democratic carping. He could begin by taking the case for the war directly to the American public, say through a televised national address, followed by an appeal for Congressional support. Bush could say: I don't need to come before Congress, but I do so in the interest of national unity. I ask our senators and representatives to stand with me in the War on Terror and in protecting the American people we have been called to serve.
Because the prospect of invading Iraq has dominated international discussion for months, there's little reason to fear that seeking Congressional support in advance might tip off Hussein to American intentions. Those intentions are already quite clear, and any remaining ambiguity was dashed to rest when the New York Times reported earlier this month that the U.S. has already begun to build up its arsenal around Iraq. To the extent that the element of surprise exists at all, it lies in the logistics and the timing of an attack, both of which would stay secret.
For Bush, seeking Congressional approval is a no-lose situation. A solid majority of American voters back a forcible Iraqi regime change, and those numbers would only increase following a direct presidential appeal. Democrats can read polls as well as anyone, and would doubtless want to avoid putting themselves on the wrong side of history, as they did in 1991, when the majority of Congressional Democrats infamously voted against the Gulf War.
This time the stakes are all the greater, and the embarrassment over making the wrong decision in 1991 still lingers. With a Republican majority in the House and the likelihood of at least a few Democratic crossovers in the Senate (and probably far more than that) Congressional support for another invasion of Iraq is all but guaranteed.
The war would proceed, and Bush would appear statesmanlike for graciously seeking his opponents' support beforehand. And even if a sizable portion of Democrats were to dig in their heels and vote against the war — which seems doubtful-this, too, could only work to Bush's advantage by giving Republicans the ultimate campaign issue both for 2002 and 2004. Republicans could then convincingly contend that theirs alone is the party that's serious about ridding the world of the terrorist scourge and thwarting the next 9/11; theirs alone is the party that cowers neither from challenges nor the criticisms of European elites.
Thus the need for Bush to seek Congressional approval before the November election, so that public pressure on the Democrats will be greater than ever, as would be the political price they would pay for refusing to lend their support. Bush has hinted in the past that he won’t invade Iraq until after November, but there’s no reason why he couldn’t get a resolution before then. Democrats would have little grounds for complaint — after all, they’re the ones clamoring for Congressional oversight.
But complain they surely will. Charges about Bush’s “politicizing” the war are inevitable, but destined to fall flat. Why shouldn’t the war be politicized, that is, made the stuff of elections and campaigns? What issue is more important, more pressing? Why should the country’s elected officials’ positions on Medicare expansion matter more than their positions on defending innocent Americans from terrorist attack?
Bush can give Democrats a clear choice: Support the war once and for all, or register your opposition, and then go explain yourself to your constituents.
Put up, or shut up.