No War Without Debate

With leaks of battle plans showing up daily in the New York Times, Congress has become uneasy and worries that the White House may be thinking of starting a war without it. President Bush has not signaled any intention of seeking congressional approval before attacking Iraq, and the White House has declined to participate in this week’s hearings on the topic in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Every major war in American history has been conducted with congressional approval. Such approval has not always taken the form of a formal declaration of war, but resolutions such as those authorizing the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War have the key elements of such a declaration. They involved a public debate by the representatives of the people about the pros and cons of war. So far Bush has shown no desire to submit his plans for such approval. Consequently Congress has gotten nervous. On Tuesday, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a resolution opposing the use of force against Iraq without either congressional authorization or a declaration of war.

A war against Iraq would not be a lightning strike mission with minimal casualties and minor repercussions that might not demand a congressional debate. Rather it is a mission that contains huge risks.

Despite repeated weapons inspections in Iraq, it is commonly held that its government still possesses biological and chemical weapons. Were Saddam Hussein to unleash these weapons on American troops, significant casualties could be sustained. Were Iraqi forces to retreat to the cities instead of fighting in the open desert as they did ten years ago, Americans would face the greatly heightened risks of urban warfare. Were Hussein to direct his firepower at political as well as military targets, the nightmare scenarios could multiply.

Iraq could target Israel with its biological or chemical weaponry. Iraq used Scud missiles last time and, under American pressure, the Israelis did not retaliate. Many in the Sharon administration believe this was a mistake and that it portrayed weakness to the Arab world. If Iraq were to target Israel and if Israel were to respond, the consequences for the region are almost unimaginable.

Op-ed writers have begun thinking of other terrible possibilities to counter the gung-ho battle plans. Graham T. Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, now at Harvard, wrote about the dangers of chemical and biological weapons being directed against military and civilian targets. He outlined one frightening possibility: “Imagine, God forbid, that as the United States builds up an invasion force in the Persian Gulf, Hussein sends a secret letter to President Bush informing him that he has placed biological weapons in New York, Washington and several other U.S. cities. Where would the confrontation go from there?”

The Senate hearings offer the opportunity to consider this war soberly. The military consequences may be much graver than the perception from Pennsylvania Avenue. At the Senate hearings Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of a new assessment of Iraqi military strength, said: “Iraq might be a far easier opponent than its force strengths indicate, but it is also potentially a very serious military opponent indeed, and to be perfectly blunt, I think only fools would bet the lives of other men’s sons and daughters on their own arrogance and call this force a ‘cakewalk’ or a ‘speed-bump.’”

Bush and the hawks in the administration are right to want a different man at the helm in Baghdad. After all, instead of being a pariah, Iraq could be a locus of stability and moderation in the region. Iraq is a nation with no tradition of Muslim fundamentalism. It has an educated populace and a history as a cultural and economic center for the region. A secular, well-run Iraq would offer many opportunities not only to its people, but also to American interests in the region. Hussein is a bad man for his country and for the world. But embarking on a war to remove him without publicly considering the risks and dangers, without gaining the approval of the people through their proxies in Congress, would be undemocratic and foolhardy.

Senators Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) announced the hearing in the New York Times: “We hope to start a national discussion of some critical questions.” Among those questions, the senators suggested, were: What threat does Iraq pose and is it an immediate danger? What are the possible responses to this threat? And were Hussein to be removed, what would America’s responsibilities be?

At the opening session, Biden warned the administration not to jump the gun without following the appropriate democratic measures. “I truly believe and I think all of my colleagues [believe] that a foreign policy will not be sustained particularly with regards to the expenditure of American treasure and blood, potentially, without the informed consent of the American people,” he said.

A war against Iraq may be a right war. It may be imperative to destroy Hussein’s administration before it possesses nuclear weapons. It may be important for America’s Middle East policy to remove this man. But what is indispensable is a sober debate about the potential terrible consequences. No war should be embarked upon; no life should be risked until the American people have a chance to make their voices heard.

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