President Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf crisis is enjoying strong bipartisan support -- for now. Long knives are already being drawn and sharpened concerning administration policies toward Iraq prior to its invasion of Kuwait, but that blood-letting is likely to come after the crisis either eases or is resolved. At the very least, it will come after the November elections.
In spite of the general spirit of support for the deployment of American forces to the Middle East, though, there is a good bit of muttering and kicking up of dirt on the foreign policy playing field. Congress wants to assert its constitutional role in the decision-making of war rather than be forced into a post-departum rally-round-the-flag choral assignment.
But what is Congress to do? There is a general consensus that the War Powers Act -- whose purpose was to build unity at home before troops were sent abroad -- has proved unworkable. Presidents neither like nor respect it. Its 60-day and 90-day deadlines for troop withdrawal are arbitrary and may only succeed in making America's adversaries bolder and more obdurate. And its provisions that permit Congress to reverse a presidential decision without taking any affirmative action are seen as cowardly.
All of the above may be true, but it is nonetheless the law of the land. Congressional failure to insist upon compliance with the act raises serious questions about the role of Congress in the field of foreign policy and the rule of law in our lives.
Congress has rarely displayed the temerity to challenge a president who is either personally popular or whose policies enjoy popular support. It is unlikely that Congress will challenge President Bush to abide by the provisions of the War Powers Act. But the president, even in the absence of congressional demands, would be wise to place co-responsibility on the shoulders of those who are often deft at avoiding it.
With the passage of time, American citizens may become increasingly disenchanted with the notion of their sons and daughters remaining at risk in the Persian Gulf. Budget cuts for domestic programs and higher taxes (sorry, I mean enhanced revenues) are likely to generate an animus that will not respect foreign policy boundaries.
As editorial commentators from the ideological left and right continue to question the wisdom or need to deploy American forces abroad, members of Congress even now are starting to hedge their support with a subtle shift here, another reservation there. And should there be blood in the Saudi Arabian sands, it will come as no surprise to find Congress in full flight behind public opinion raging in a direction quite opposite from the prevailing winds of today.
President Bush would serve his own decision and America's cause well by complying with the formal provisions of the War Powers Act and asking the congressional leadership to schedule a vote in support or rejection of American forces being placed in circumstances involving imminent hostilities. It would not be impossible for Congress to reverse its course later and cast stones at the Oval Office, but it would be harder for it to do so once its members formally are on record in support of the operation.
Important as these practical and political considerations are, there is a more compelling reason involved. In the past, Congress has not hesitated to turn its wrath against presidents who either subvert or seek to circumvent the law. Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal easily come to mind. Indeed, one would need an abacus or an Apple II to count the times Justice Louis Brandeis' words -- "If the government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for law" -- were invoked during those disquieting days.
Congress can claim no high moral ground if the executive branch chooses to flout its laws when Congress itself deliberately ignores the laws it has fashioned. If the War Powers Act is unworkable, it should be immediately modified or nullified. Until that occurs, Congress should insist upon executive compliance. To do otherwise is to invite not only a contempt for the rule of law but contempt for Congress itself.
The writer is a Republican senator from Maine.