Where Are the Doves in Congress ?

On Iraq, they are few and far between

by John Nichols

The Progressive magazine, October 1999


Russ Feingold, the Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, is frustrated. And he is lonely. In a Congress that once demanded that Presidents account for their war-making, Feingold finds few who will join him in questioning the legality of the hidden war on Iraq. Some leading Democrats with anti-war roots, such as U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and U.S. Representative Howard Berman of California, have actually sided with conservative Congressional leaders in advising the White House to step up an already intense schedule of bombing raids on Iraq. Even liberal Democrats like Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Chris Dodd of Connecticut-who decried the illegal wars of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan-are notably silent regarding the wars of Bill Clinton.

"There seems to be an informal understanding that, despite the fact that the Constitution says the Congress must declare wars, and despite the fact that the War Powers Act is good law, the Congress is simply going to ignore its duties," says Feingold. "There has been a willing surrender of Congressional authority to an aggrandizing White House. It suits both their purposes. The Administration does not want to endure tough questioning about what it is doing around the world, and the Congress does not seem to want to take responsibility for deciding whether the country should be engaged in wars all over the planet."

The United States has been pursuing an aggressive bombing campaign against Iraq since December 1998. During the first eight months of 1999, American and British pilots fired more than 1,100 missiles against 360 targets in Iraq, according to The New York Times, which referred to the campaign as an "intense but little-noticed fight." The Iraq bombing, the Times added, was already two-thirds the size of NATO's assault on Yugoslavia.

While the Yugoslav war provoked spirited Congressional debate, high-profile fact-finding missions, threats of funding cuts, and an energetic attempt by U.S. House members to assert the restrictions contained in the War Powers Act, the Iraq war has received little notice among politicians. For instance, when Iraqi officials produced evidence in late August that U.S. bombing raids on the town of Ba'shequa, 280 miles north of Baghdad, had killed two people and injured a number of others, the news passed without Congressional mention.

"The War Powers Act should be in play. One of the biggest pretenses in Washington is the suggestion that it doesn't apply, but that's wrong. It should be applied," says Feingold, who is no fan of Saddam Hussein but who insists the law is the law. The Clinton Administration says its authority to bomb Iraq comes from 1991 Congressional votes authorizing George Bush's Gulf War fight to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and to related Congressional votes later that year. But Feingold sees a deliberate effort to circumvent the War Powers Act.

"I hear people say there was a vote in 1991 on going to war in the Persian Gulf But how can you say that a vote in 1991 justifies these acts in 1999?" argues Feingold. "Because on one occasion the Congress gave the President a measure of authority to launch military action, that does not mean that for 100 years any President can do anything he wants."

Even reports by the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Red Cross, and religious delegations have provoked remarkably restrained responses from a Congress that is constitutionally duty-bound to authorize U.S. war-making.

"It's as if a lot of people in positions of power, people who know better, are simply saying, 'We're not going to talk about what our policies are doing to the children of Iraq," says Father Robert Drinan, who, as a House Democrat from Massachusetts in the 1970s, was a leading advocate for humane and responsible U.S. foreign policies. "It surprises me and troubles me that there are not more members of Congress speaking out, deploring the bombings, talking about what these policies are doing to the people of Iraq."

Once upon a time, members of Congress-particularly progressive Democrats-had few qualms about challenging military adventurism on the part of Presidents. In the spring of 1973, on orders of Richard Nixon, U.S. bombers rained death and destruction on Cambodia in an undeclared war. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demanded, "Does the President assert-as the kings of old-that as Commander in Chief he can order American forces anywhere for any purpose that suits him?"

The chairman was J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, and in the months that followed, he and his allies in the Senate fashioned legislation that sought to stop future Presidents from leading the nation into illegal and unconstitutional wars. Their initiative culminated in the fall of that year with the passage of the War Powers Act. The act required Presidents to inform Congress within forty-eight hours of the deployment of American military forces abroad. In the absence of explicit Congressional approval, it obligated the chief executive to withdraw those troops within sixty days.

When a Watergate-weakened Nixon vetoed the law, Congress voted to override him-signaling what Fulbright saw as a vital "restoration of the balance of powers" between the executive and legislative branches.

The enactment of the War Powers Act was only one example of the intent on the part of progressive legislators to force Presidents to obey the Constitution. For instance, citing Section 1, Article 8, of the Constitution, Drinan wrote a resolution to impeach the President for his illegal bombing of Cambodia. It won the support of twelve members of the House Judiciary Committee.

A decade later, then-President Ronald Reagan poured billions of tax dollars into the undeclared wars in Central America and the Caribbean. U.S. Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California, condemned "cream puff" restraints on Presidential war-making and called for Reagan's impeachment. Later, U.S. Representatives Ted Weiss, Democrat of New York, and Henry B. Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas, sought to impeach Reagan for failing to seek Congressional approval before unilaterally launching a war on Grenada.

None of these initiatives came close to deposing a President for violations of constitutional provisions regarding war-making. But they forced the issue of military adventurism into the national debate, and they served notice on that they would have to contend with a Congress that also controlled military purse strings.

Now, however, Congress has abdicated. "I think a lot of people are afraid to be accused of being sympathetic to Saddam Hussein," says Robert Kastenmeier, former Democratic Representative from Wisconsin and one of the first members of Congress to speak out against the Vietnam War. "What they don't seem to understand is that this is not about whether you like Saddam Hussein. It should be obvious after all these years that our bombing of Iraq is not having much effect on Hussein. But it is having a horrible effect on the people of Iraq. And, I would argue, it is having a bad effect on America-I think there are always dangers when a country follows policies that are impossible to justify. That's what the Congress should be talking about. That's one of the reasons we have a Congress-to deal with these sorts of fundamental issues."

Kastenmeier suggests that many Democrats today who hold anti-war views are afraid to challenge a Democratic President's policies. "When Democrats challenged a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, on Vietnam, they put conscience ahead of party," recalls Kastenmeier.

"Now, there seems to be a lot less interest in challenging a President who is a member of our party. That's regrettable. He should be challenged. He's wrong."

Activists who lobby for a shift in U.S. policy say they encounter many liberal Democrats who are unwilling even to encourage debate about the nation's policies regarding Iraq.

"As far as getting anyone to take a lead, it's slim pickings," says Shari Silberstein, programs director for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington-based group formed by Gulf War veterans to lobby for an end to economic sanctions against Iraq. "Very frequently, we get the line: "We agree with you, but this really isn't our issue.' It's very common for our people, when they go up to the Hill to lobby, to be told: 'Look, you're right, but we can't do anything to help you."'

Last fall, Denis Halliday, the U.N. coordinator for food programs in Iraq, quit his job and denounced sanctions as "a totally bankrupt concept." U.S. Senators Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, and Spencer Abraham, Republican of Michigan, responded by sending a tepid letter to the White House asking President Clinton to ease some of the economic sanctions against Iraq. A more pointed letter to Clinton, by U.S. Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was circulated among House members. It noted "the serious deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Iraq."

Conyers's letter cited studies showing that nearly one million Iraqi children are chronically malnourished because of food shortages brought on by economic sanctions. The letter urged a shift in Presidential priorities.

"The time has come to reexamine the intended goals and the actual effects of these sanctions," the letter said. "The first step should be to de-link the economic sanctions, which have been a complete failure, from the military sanctions, which have had a measured success.... Continued economic sanctions allow Saddam Hussein to exploit the suffering of his people to his political advantage. We are simply asking you to look squarely at the economic sanctions, which have outlasted their political utility. They now serve only to extend the human suffering of the population and carry out a policy that has driven religious leaders-the moral conscience of our nation-to acts of desperation."

Forty-three members of the House signed the letter. Most were Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, people like U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, David Bonior, Democrat of Michigan, and Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont. Tom Campbell, Republican of California, also signed on.

Campbell, a constitutional scholar who clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s and then taught law at Stanford, has emerged as a fascinating player in the Congressional debate over Presidential war-making powers. During the Yugoslav bombing, it was Campbell who sued over the question of the War Powers Act, announcing in June that "Clinton's war is now illegal." He explained, "The Constitution says that only Congress can declare war. The 1973 Congress [in the War Powers Act] said no excuses could justify postponing that approval beyond sixty days. We have been at war now beyond sixty days.... Congress must reassert its right to decide when American armed forces are committed to war."

Campbell has not been as aggressive regarding Iraq as he was during the Kosovo fighting. But one of his allies in the War Powers suit, Texas Republican Ron Paul- who in 1988 sought the Presidency as the candidate of the Libertarian Party-has made his sentiments clear.

Beyond the basic issue of the war's legality, Paul and a few others have asked tough questions about its expense. While the cost of the bombing raids is difficult to estimate, the Department of Defense acknowledges that, since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. has spent more than $7 billion for continued military operations in the Gulf region.

"Why is Iraq a greater threat to U.S. security than China, North Korea, Russia or Iran? They all have weapons of mass destruction. This makes no sense," Paul said in a House speech late last year about Clinton's bombing campaign. Paul also has been persistent in asking why Congress has had no real role in the ongoing war against Iraq. "There was a time in our history when bombing foreign countries was considered an act of war, done only with a declaration of Congress," he told the House. "Today, tragically, it is done at the whim of Presidents and at the urging of Congressional leaders without a vote, except maybe by the U.N. Security Council."

There is a note of resignation in Paul's remarks, which a number of Washington veterans understand.

"The War Powers Act came into being at a time when we were trying-as a Congress-to create some sort of accountability on the part of the White House," Kastenmeier says. "It was the time of Vietnam, the Cambodia bombings, Chile with Pinochet, Watergate, and it was clear that there was a need for Congress to assert its authority. But it hasn't worked. Up to the present time, the War Powers Act hasn't really served as an effective brake on the President's war-making powers. It should, but it hasn't."

Some House members are seeking to strengthen the War Powers Act. Specifically citing what he describes as the "undeclared air war over Iraq," U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has joined with Jack Metcalf, a conservative Republican from Washington state, to introduce a bill that would bar the use of Congressionally appropriated funding for unauthorized offensive military actions.

But Feingold is less concerned about passing new legislation than he is about forcing Congress to apply the laws on the books. "What we in Congress have allowed to happen to the War Powers Act, the way we have allowed it to simply fall apart, is one of the real tragedies of American constitutional law," he says. "Because we have not applied the War Powers Act, America is now in the process of attempting to police the world. We are in so many ongoing fights that people are starting to talk about reinstituting the draft. We are approaching Pax Americana. This is dangerous for America. This is exactly the situation that the founders of this country warned about. This is what George Washington was talking about when he spoke of avoiding foreign entanglements. This is what Eisenhower was talking about when he warned us about the military-industrial complex. Well, now we have foreign entanglements. We have policies that are driven by a military-industrial complex. The War Powers Act was designed to protect against this, and when we fail to apply it to Iraq or any of these other situations, we fail in our duties."


John Nichols is Editorial Page Editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes about electoral politics for The Progressive.

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