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Does It Matter?

Fri, Sep 27th, 2002
Posted in Columnists

I don’t normally write about national politics, but I have been troubled by recent events in Washington, in particular the move by the Bush Administration to seek Congressional approval for the President to take military action against Iraq. This political effort is eerily reminiscent of what took place in this country nearly 40 years ago, just prior to America’s full engagement in the Vietnam War. The passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, turned out to be a pivotal move toward the commitment of U.S. troops and the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. This Congressional action came on the heels of an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin where North Vietnamese gunboats alledgedly fired on U.S. warships. On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson went on national television explaining that U.S. ships had been attacked without provocation. The resolution passed overwhelmingly in the House 416-0. In the Senate, only Senators Ernest Gruening (Alaska) and Wayne Morse (Oregon) opposed the bill. The passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution transferred to President Johnson Congress’ constitutional power to declare war, and gave the president the “right to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to respond to North Vietnamese aggression.When the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, it was revealed that the Johnson Administration had drafted the Gulf of Tonkin resolution several months in advance of the incident and that he used the events of August 4, 1964 for his own purposes. More than 50,000 American soldiers died and another three million Vietnamese combatants and civilians were killed during the Vietnam Conflict. Ironically, war was never formally declared against North Vietnam.In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, over then President Richard Nixon’s veto. This action overturned the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and required that in the future the President would need Congressional approval before engaging the armed forces in extended military operations.All of this is background to what is presently happening between the Bush Administration and Congress regarding Iraq. The Administration is encouraging members of Congress to put aside the War Powers Act in order to give the President the authority to act unilaterally against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. While few of us would disagree that Saddam is a horrible dictator, one can’t help but wonder why Iraq has been suddenly elevated to the top of our nation’s enemies list.In both instances, Vietnam and Iraq, the fundamental question before Congress was/is whether to allow the President the authority to launch pre-emptive strikes as opposed to being limited to taking only retaliatory action.The debate today is of course being played out in an atmosphere of crisis in the Mid-East, debate over the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, as well as mid-term elections, where a change of a few seats in the House or Senate could determine the Congressional leadership for the next few years. International threats, which includes Iraq’s threat to gather weapons of mass destruction, should be dealt with by the international community through the United Nations. Now is not the time to be playing games with our democratic balance of powers as an expedient to giving the President the authority to take unilateral action against Saddam. The alternative is for the President to make the case before Congress to declare an Act of War.A few years ago, Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson, was travelling in Vietnam and met with former Vietnamese General Vo Nhuyen Giap, the architect of Vietnam’s war against the French and Americans.McNamara is reported to have asked Giap if in fact the Gulf of Tonkin incident had really ever taken place.Giap is supposed to have have stoically replied, “Does it matter?”While Iraq is not Vietnam, giving President Bush powers reserved solely for Congress, regardless of how limited, is bad public policy. It certainly didn’t work out very well the last time.

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