Congressional Debate on Iraq More Thoughtful after Testimony of Non-Governmental Witnesses

Article excerpt

Congressional Debate on Iraq More Thoughtful After Testimony of Non-Governmental Witnesses

As the Clinton administration was blindly reeling toward military action against Iraq in late January and early February, Congress all but abdicated its responsibility to act as a check on reckless executive branch behavior. As a Washington Post editor wrote on Feb. 22, "There was more soaring oratory in the House of Commons last week...than has been heard in the chambers of Congress."

He went on to point out that the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sets up several steps that a president must follow before committing troops to combat, is still in force. Yet President Bill Clinton appeared to be fully set to "commit troops to combat" without any indication of congressional approval.

The administration steadfastly proclaimed that, although "we would welcome congressional support" before taking military action, such support was not necessary. Clinton's justification for this position was that he already had sufficient congressional authority for military action, derived from the Persian Gulf war resolution passed in 1991.

Prospects for a congressional debate were complicated by the Jan. 28 introduction-without it being requested by the administration -- by Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Trent Lott (R-MS) and Tom Daschle (D-SD), of a concurrent resolution that would, in effect, give the White House a blank check to "take all necessary and appropriate actions to respond to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs." However, this resolution set off enough alarm bells among congressmen who recalled the similar Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 that Lott and Daschle agreed to postpone voting on their resolution "to make sure that we have had all the questions asked and answered."

LEADERSHIP VACUUM

At this point one reasonably could have expected to see some concerted action by the congressional leadership to make sure that those questions were asked by Congress and answered by the administration before Congress adjourned on Feb. 14 for its "Presidents' Day" recess. It didn't happen.

The administration did send Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and others to Capitol Hill to "brief" selected senators and representatives during the first two weeks of February. There were no calls, however, for a public and searching cross-examination regarding the administration's Iraq policy by the four House and Senate committees primarily responsible for national security and foreign affairs.

The only partial exception to this was the appearance by Albright before Sen. Jesse Helms's (R-NC) Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Rep. Benjamin Gilman's (RNY) House International Relations Committee at previously scheduled heatings on Feb. 10 and 12 regarding the administration's FY-99 foreign policy budget request.

Although the two hearings necessarily covered a wide range of topics, Helms, Gilman, and other committee members did ask Albright some hard questions about Iraq, such as: What would it take to topple Saddam? If Saddam were to fall, what or who would likely replace him? What would be Iran's reaction? What other alternatives are there? Why haven't the Gulf Arab states supported the U.S. as they did during "Desert Storm"? And, what would be the goals and objectives of a military strike?

Albright was not forthcoming in her answers, but neither was she called to task for her lack of candor by the members of the committee. She repeated the smokescreen that the administration saw only three choices in confronting Saddam: do nothing; commit 500,000 ground troops as during "Desert Storm;" or take military measures to "diminish Saddam's capability to re-establish his weapons of mass destruction and threaten his neighbors."

She said it was not necessarily the administration's goal to topple Saddam. …