As we inch closer and closer to war in the Persian Gulf, the prerogative of Congress to declare war continues to be debated. And rightfully so.
This year we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Empire of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec. 7, 1941. Twenty-four hours later, President Roosevelt sought and obtained a congressional declaration of war.It was the last such declaration in American history.
There have been two major wars since then - Korea and Vietnam - with more than 50,000 casualties in each, and many smaller engagements in Cuba, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic, Libya, Grenada and Panama.
Each time, presidents have managed to avoid the constitutional stipulation in Article I, Section 8, that "the Congress shall have power to . . . declare war."
There have been more than 200 instances of the use of U.S. armed forces abroad, and Congress exercised its prerogative of formally declaring war in only five - The War of 1812, the Mexican War of 1846, the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the two world wars.
Ever since President Bush said that the Constitution does not require him to consult with "535 strong-willed individuals," many members of Congress have been trying to come up with a way of forcing the president to seek congressional approval for any military action in the Persian Gulf.
Actually, the president and Congress share the power to make war.
Not only does Congress have the power to declare war, but also to "provide for the common defense," and "raise armies and navies." The president is the "commander in chief" of the armed forces and is also assigned to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was decided that Congress would have power "to make war," but also that the president should have the power to act in an emergency to repel sudden attack. This was done with the understanding that Congress would be involved in the initiation of war.
The spirit of the law is this: War is so devastating that many ought to be carefully consulted before a commitment is made.
The whole Congress may seem like too many, but it is better to have too many than too few.
The framers of the Constitution clearly intended that a consensus be reached among many people before a war be declared.
The tendency of any executive to become too powerful is reason enough to provide all kinds of checks.
It could reasonably be said that Harry Truman made a mistake in Korea and that Lyndon Johnson made a mistake in Vietnam. The American public thought so and condemned them for it.
In some instances, the president has thought that a military action was so limited that it could not be considered war - such as Bush's action to retrieve Noriega from Panama.
On the other hand, no president wants his hand to be revealed by the absolute necessity to seek Congressional approval. Bush, for instance, wants Saddam Hussein to believe that he will not hesitate to attack at any moment.
But the Constitution has not given the president the power to launch such an attack.
Maybe that's why Bush's rationalizations to the American public have varied so wildly - to protect oil or jobs, to stop "naked aggression," to establish a "new world order" and to take sides in "a clear moral case of good vs. evil."
If a war is fought, Bush has pledged that, "This will not be another Vietnam. Our generals' hands will not be tied behind their backs."
In other words, the president sees it as a war without limitations. If that is true, he should not do it alone.
In spite of our increasing tendency to ignore the constitutional stipulation that Congress declare war - we should insist that it be honored. If Congress refuses to do it - there should be no war. Pure and simple.