If it took the stock market crash and the ghost of Gramm-Rudman to drag Ronald Reagan into negotiations with Congress on the budget deficit, what would it take to propel the president to put an end to a comparable confrontation with Congress on U.S. policy for the Persian Gulf?
Nothing as shattering, one hopes, as Black Monday. Indeed, it need take nothing more than an understanding: (1) that the U.S. Navy is caught up in a conflict in a part of the world that is fully as volatile and unpredictable as the stock market; (2) that some measure of congressional support is essential to the mission; and (3) that, in a certain sense, Gramm-Rudman and the War Powers Resolution are legislative birds of a kind.
Both attempt to deal with gray areas in the respective powers of the legislative and executive branches. Both are blunt instruments. Carried to their extremes, both would impose crippling restraints on the president's policy-making prerogatives; no prudent member of Congress should want to take responsibility for the potential consequences.
For just those reasons, both Gramm-Rudman and the War Powers Resolution have at least one virtue in common; both measures tend to concentrate the mind on the need for some accommodation before their worst features are brought to bear.
So why don't the budget negotiations between the administration and Congress offer a model for resolving the conflict over the Persian Gulf? The answer is that they do -- or at least they should, if both sides would heed Santayana's familiar dictum: ''Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''
The ''past'' that neither party to this dispute cares to remember is Lebanon, 1982. Then (as in the case of the ''reflagged'' tankers last spring), there were the initial, disingenuous reassurances of a quick, risk-free U.S. military mission. There was no need to invoke the War Powers Resolution (which requires congressional consent to military deployments within 90 days), the administration insisted; the operative language -- ''situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated'' -- did not apply.
The outcome need hardly be rehearsed. The president and Congress wrestled with each other while hostilities intensified. Congress flailed around in futility for almost a year before finally forcing an 18-month variation of the war powers strictures on the president (which he signed with a churlish dismissal of its findings that the War Powers Resolution did, in fact, apply). A few weeks later a truck-bomb blew up the Marine compound, at a cost of 241 dead -- and blew away the last vestige of a coherent, consistent U.S. policy.
The lessons leap out to Chairman Les Aspin of the House Armed Services Committee, who has talked more sense than most people about the Gulf crisis from the start. He would have Congress abandon its ambitions to tie the president's hands. But he would have the president satisfy the congressional craving for a sense of participation by invoking the War Powers Resolution on his own initiative.
He would also have the president sharpen such sweeping purposes as ''protecting the principle of freedom of navigation.'' ''Protection,'' Aspin notes, ''is offered to only 11 American-flagged ex-Kuwaiti tankers against Iran -- while Iraq remains the principal offender and ''more ships have been hit by the two belligerents in the last two months than in any similar period in the war.''
A consensus built around two aims -- access to the Gulf's oil and the ''containment,'' militarily and diplomatically, of Iran's Islamic ''revolutionary messianism'' -- Aspin argues, would not be too difficult to achieve. It would give weight to policy. It would also spread not only the political rewards but the considerable political risks of a dangerous game on the eve of an election year. Finally, it would put an end to the bootless argument that, as the president would have it, the War Powers Resolution is ''illegal'' (a strange thing to say about a law) and ''unconstitutional'' (which is not for him to say).
Only an excess of presidential adamancy and congressional pride of place stands in the way of so sensible a formula, and for this Santayana also had something to say: ''Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aims.''