DO WE not all recall the ancient time, five or 10 minutes ago, when sober people in Congress and the Democratic Party were urging a presumably impetuous president to win international approval before contemplating military action to enforce international condemnations of Iraqi aggression? Now that President Bush stands on the verge of winning an unprecedented Security Council authorization of force, the tone is changing. No longer are yesterday's champions of collective security depicting approval by the United Nations as the key to effectiveness in the Gulf and as the gateway to a brave new American foreign policy of world order. They are saying it's a useful and necessary but not sufficient condition of American military engagement: Congress must weigh in too.
In this assertion, of course, there is great merit. Congress must weigh in. It is its political duty and its constitutional obligation. It was never more than an idle daydream that somehow the United States could ship its foreign policy up to the U.N. But the call for Mr. Bush to consult Congress rings a bit odd when it comes from an institution that has shrunk from assuming a co-responsibility in this crisis; only when the president himself overreached by springing a midstream change of mission from defense to offense did Congress start -- and then only start -- to get off a dime.
The call to consult Congress rings even odder when it comes from those who may have expected the U.N. to restrain Washington. In a sense today's resolution is a restraint: it links force to the short list of policy goals supported by the U.N., not to the longer American list including removing Iraq's leader and destroying its arsenal. In the threshold sense, nonetheless, a resolution is expansive: it should add credibility to any subsequent threat to use force. That's its point.
Should not the American legislature at least come abreast of the position the American government appears about to carry at the United Nations? Set aside the embarrassment of repudiation of a policy endorsed by governments accepted as arbiters of international political taste. If the policy were wrong, embarrassment would be the least of it. But the policy is right. There is persuasive testimony for further testing the current policy of economic embargo, political isolation, the pressure of a military buildup and diplomatic probing. But it could only help if Saddam Hussein understood that the sequel to this policy of "patience," in Mikhail Gorbachev's term, was not evaporation of the alliance but a possible international military campaign. This is U.N. logic. People who think of themselves as internationalists should have a special interest in making it American logic too.