Despite President Bush’s offer to hold direct talks with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis, the momentum toward war remains very strong. Even if the president’s proposal is sincere and not merely a diplomatic charade to quiet domestic and international critics, it comes after a rather long series of ominous declarations. Bush repeatedly rejected a compromise solution to the crisis, explicitly compared Saddam with Adolf Hitler, and offered dark hints of demands for reparations and Nuremberg-style war crimes trials. CIA Director William Webster and other administration officials implied that the U.S. objective of achieving stability in the Persian Gulf requires Saddam’s overthrow and the destruction of Iraq’s military capabilities. After deliberately downplaying the hostage issue since the onset of the crisis, the president and Secretary of State James A. Baker III elevated the plight of the Americans being held in Iraq and Kuwait to the level of a possible casus belli. Most ominous of all, the United States announced the dispatch of an additional 150,000 to 200,000 troops to the gulf for the explicit purpose of having an “offensive capability” and obtained a UN resolution authorizing the use of force if the ongoing economic blockade fails to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The rationale for the U.S. military presence in the gulf has clearly grown far beyond the original, limited justification of deterring an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia.
The United States is again sliding inexorably into a war that Congress has not sanctioned. Since 1945 American presidents have committed U.S. troops to two major wars (Korea and Vietnam) and a host of lesser conflicts (most recently Panama, Grenada, and Lebanon) without asking Congress to declare war. Dusting off the imperial presidency’s supposed constitutional prerogatives, President Bush has asserted that although he intends to “consult” selected congressional leaders, he feels no obligation to seek authorization from Congress before initiating hostilities against Iraq. That high-handed assertion of executive-branch supremacy should be worrisome even to Americans who might be inclined to support a decision to employ military force in the gulf. Congress should act now—before it is too late— to prohibit the use of U.S. forces in offensive actions against Iraq without explicit congressional approval.