Word to Congress: Before attacking Iraq, declare war

The talk in Congress this fall will all be about a potential war between the United States and Iraq. There will be the elevated discussions: Should the United States undertake this endeavor? When should Washington initiate hostilities? Will this turn into another Vietnam? Is war our only recourse? Can we win? Is this the right thing to do?

But there will be less-elevated discussions as well: How will a war play politically? What effect will it have on the 2004 presidential election? Is this the son making up for the omissions of the father?

If war it is to be, and the United States intends to initiate it, then it is incumbent upon the President and the Congress to follow constitutional procedures.

The President should request and Congress should consider nothing less than a formal declaration of war. Some vague, open-ended, ill-defined resolution will not suffice.

It's not as though the United States has always needed a formal declaration to undertake military operations. The country has found itself in situations of undeclared hostility almost from its founding. It fought undeclared wars with the Barbary pirates and revolutionary France even before the 18th century was out. Despite fighting more than 100 conflicts, the United States has formally declared war only five times. It has not done so since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

During the Cold War when destruction could descend from the heavens in an instant, and retaliation had to be launched within the hour the notion of formally declaring hostilities was widely viewed as belonging to an earlier pre-technological age along with letters of marque. The need to quickly apply counterforce to halt communist aggression made waiting for a declaration of war impossible.

However, the American experience in Vietnam gave rise to the War Powers Act of 1973. It requires congressional approval within 60 days for military action the President has already taken, and it has served in lieu of war declarations ever since. In effect, it allows the President to respond immediately but gives Congress a veto over extended involvement.

The Military Force Authorization Act (S.J. Res. 23), introduced as a simple resolution, gave the President the authority to pursue the September 11 criminals and those who sheltered them in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When President Bush demanded that Taliban-led Afghanistan give up Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operatives, it was that resolution, rather than a formal declaration, that paved the way for U.S. military operations. Although some members, notably Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), called for a formal declaration of war against terrorism, the questions raised by a war against an "ism" could not be met through legislation.

But with Iraq we're talking about a war against a nation-state. And since we're the ones initiating the overt hostilities justified though they may be it behooves us to have a full debate and a formal declaration of war by Congress, as provided for in the Constitution. If the President can't convince Congress to make such a declaration, then perhaps the United States shouldn't go to war it's that simple.

However, if Congress agrees that war against Iraq is necessary and passes a declaration of war, the country would go into the conflict united, and the military effort would have been thoroughly debated and given legitimacy. This would be especially important for a President whose own electoral victory raised questions of legitimacy.

There are other advantages. In every war America has fought, the President has needed to assume sweeping powers. In a formal state of war, the President can properly dictate the nation's industrial production, restrict civil liberties, and take a variety of emergency measures to ensure victory.

A well-debated and well-crafted declaration of war can also limit presidential powers by establishing a time frame for his war powers and by setting out specific war aims. In that way it can act as a check on the President's emergency powers.

War is the single most dangerous and risky endeavor on which a nation can embark. Terrorists have declared war on us, and we have struck back. A war against Iraq would be one more battle within that larger war. But the nature of the conflict, the potential consequences, and the fact that this would be the opening of a new front against a sovereign nation demands that the Constitution be scrupulously observed.

And one more thing: Saddam Hussein must be destroyed.


The author is the managing editor of The Hill. a non-partisan, non-ideological weekly newspaper that describes the inner workings of Congress.