Iraq Resolution Sends Chills Through Some in Congress
By Helen Dewar
Instead, the broad sweep of the resolution has stirred three-decades-old memories of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to escalate U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. As a result, it has invited debate over the administration's long-term strategy on Iraq.
Critics of the resolution have not objected to the administration's declared plans for airstrikes against Iraq if its leaders do not allow unrestricted weapons inspections, although some have misgivings about the plans. Rather, they are taking issue with what they see as a "blank check" for military escalation without a vote of Congress -- as happened after 1964, when Congress sanctioned "all necessary measures" by Johnson to repel attacks on U.S. forces in Vietnam and "to prevent further aggression."
Even though the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had the force of law, unlike the proposed non-binding resolution on Iraq, some legislators fear that the current measure could be used as a tacit endorsement of an expanding military mission, including possible deployment of American ground troops.
"When I read that language, all the bells and whistles went off," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one of several Democrats who are urging changes in the resolution to acknowledge constitutional and legal limits on presidential use of military force.
"I've been down that road before and don't want to go down it again," said Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost both legs and one arm in a grenade explosion during the Vietnam War. "My point here is that there shouldn't be a rush to judgment . . . as there was with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution."
Even some who support the resolution, such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, argue that Congress should go further and vote on formal authorization of military action, including airstrikes.
In addition, senators say there are strong, although largely unspoken, concerns about where administration policy is headed, including how the United States will respond if airstrikes fail to result in Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors.
A vote on the resolution, originally targeted for last week, was put off until after a briefing on Iraq today on Capitol Hill by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger.
Meanwhile, senators were exchanging proposals for a compromise aimed at avoiding a floor fight. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who drafted the proposal with the support of Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), said he was "not wedded" to the original wording but wanted language with "some punch to it." There was never an intention to authorize ground troops and the resolution does not do so, he added.
But the open-ended nature of the proposal, and the speed with which leaders planned to pass it, contrasted sharply with most other war-related actions by Congress since Vietnam. A carefully crafted resolution authorizing the Persian Gulf War was approved in 1991 after long, anguished debate. In 1995, the Senate gave grudging support for stationing U.S. troops in Bosnia, while the House refused to go even that far.
A major reason for haste this time was congressional leaders' desire to act quickly to dispel any notion that U.S. resolve had been undermined by Clinton's problems stemming from allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern. "I think it got done in a rush. The intention was just an expression of support," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cosponsored the resolution. "There certainly was no intention to give the president a blank check."
By "urging" the president to take forceful action, Republicans were also presenting themselves as the leading advocates of toughness in dealing with Iraq. "They can't contemplate any action [by Clinton] that would be too strong," said a Republican aide.
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