Justifiably, President Bush's decision to deploy American forces in the Middle East has earned broad bipartisan support. He enjoys this support despite the fact that his decision was not preceded by consultations with congressional leaders. Nor has timely information been provided on the scope or cost of the deployments.
Congressional support after the fact was possible for two reasons. First, limited and defensive goals were enunciated and the threat to U.S. interests was unambiguous. Second, Congress had already branded Iraq an outlaw nation even before the invasion of Kuwait -- in legislation the administration then opposed; the president knew he would be acting in a supportive environment.
Operation Desert Shield has achieved quick success. Sufficient forces are in place to deter and defend against further Iraqi aggression and to enforce the U.N. economic embargo. On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Baker has made clear that if Saddam Hussein wishes to discuss his grievances against Kuwait, that can be done -- but only after he withdraws from Kuwait. No gains from aggression will be tolerated.
Despite his success in shaping and implementing this sound approach, there are those within and outside the administration who persist in urging President Bush to raise the stakes and launch an offensive against Iraq. So far, the president has resisted the calls for war and instead counseled Americans to be patient as the economic embargo, designed to pressure Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, squeezes the Iraqi economy. But the pressure and temptation to attack may mount inexorably as the military buildup is completed and the standoff continues.
An effort to oust entrenched Iraqi forces from Kuwait would, according to some estimates, cost the lives of 20,000 American soldiers and escalate the daily cost to the taxpayer from $30 million to $1 billion. Liberating Kuwait is a laudable goal, but it is doubtful that Americans would be willing to pay in blood and greater treasure so that Kuwait's autocrats can reclaim their palaces. Certainly, the removal of Saddam Hussein would be welcome. But can that be accomplished without touching off a wider conflict?
If the economic embargo does not succeed -- this cannot be known for several months -- the president should, and I trust would, consult Congress before contemplating taking the nation to war. The need to go to war should be debated by the people's representatives, as the Founding Fathers of our country intended. Debating this decision is not the sole responsibility of the executive branch.
If the president does finally conclude that taking up arms against Iraq is required, he should seek a specific authorization from Congress, preferably invoking the War Powers Resolution.
Most Americans, I believe, would agree with this proposition. Yet the administration's likely inclination may be to go it alone. So far, the administration has not been tolerant of any meaningful congressional role in foreign affairs. Indeed, when pressed the president's men will admit they would like to roll back as many of the post-Vietnam constraints on presidential action as they can. They seem oriented to nothing less than restoring the arrogance of power, at least within our own government, that Sen. J. William Fulbright rightly denounced 25 years ago.
The deserts of the Middle East may not appear as daunting as the jungles of Southeast Asia. But perils abound nevertheless. If there is to be war, let it be a collective decision reflecting the will of the American people as expressed through their 535 elected representatives. America's banner must never be "Our President, Right or Wrong."
The writer, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.