President Bush soon may order a sustained military offensive against Iraq. The United States will go to war without, it now appears, a declaration of war from Congress.

As Michael Kinsley showed {"A Declaration of War," op-ed, Dec. 13}, such unilateral executive action would violate the Constitution. The power to wage war is the most awesome responsibility entrusted to government, and it was not for nothing that the Framers gave Congress -- not the president -- the authority "to declare war."

Mr. Kinsley also observed that the judiciary is broadly accepted as the definitive interpreter of the Constitution, but he concluded that judges probably have nothing useful to say about Iraq: "In rare cases judicial review is impossible, and this may be one of them." The Post has likewise expressed skepticism that "a court could enjoin the president from acting without ... a declaration" of war {"Judges and War Powers," editorial, Dec. 15}.

It may be that judges are ill-suited to manage the details of foreign affairs, but this does not mean that they should abdicate the role for which they are best equipped -- to say what the Constitution means. Assuming that the president initiates broad-based hostile action against Iraq without the explicit consent of Congress, a conscientious and prudent judge could decide that the executive was acting unconstitutionally and then leave it to Congress and the people to follow up. Such a ruling could be quickly appealed, and if the Supreme Court ultimately agreed that the presidential action was unconstitutional, it must be assumed that the president himself would follow the law. If he did not, Congress would still have a powerful -- and legitimate -- tool to influence the political debate, even to the point of impeachment.

Congress is supposed to declare war, the judiciary to declare the law. Both branches need to exercise their responsibilities, especially if the executive is overstepping its authority. DOUGLAS B. HURON Washington

Does Prof. Van Alstyne suppose George Bush will reconsider moving against Iraq without the approval of Congress now that the professor has threatened to call him a usurper {"Letting Slip the Dogs of War," op-ed, Dec. 23}? Surely the rich tapestry of constitutional law offers a bolder strategy to secure our solemn liberties than a plan to call the president a bad name if he misbehaves. Or do those who study these things find Congress so inept that our celebrated system of checks and balances no longer exists. If so, the crisis is far greater than we know.

There is nothing wrong with the professor's reasoning. Hypothetically, of course, the president hasn't the constitutional authority to initiate warfare. But hypotheticals carry little weight outside the classroom, while the troops massed in the Saudi desert are very real.

We should all be alarmed that our system of constitutional safeguards seems to have failed. But is Prof. Van Alstyne correct to blame Mr. Bush? Hardly. Our system thrives on an assertive executive; it is designed specifically to contain him. What is missing from the Framers' plan is a Congress that pursues its duties with as much vigor. This is not a case of an overreaching president trampling the Constitution; the problem is a constitutional vacuum created by a derelict Congress. The blame for that can only go to "We the People" for allowing Congress to decay into such a corrupt, self-serving, dysfunctional body.

In a few days, the great American experiment is programmed to culminate in a spectacle that will help demarcate the outlines of the government we shall bequeath our children: On Jan. 15, the youthful visions, tender loves and precious lives of a half-million men and women will pass beneath the grim cloak of one man's solitary contemplation.

Prof. Van Alstyne is quite wrong; Mr. Bush will bear no guilt for undermining the Framers' work should he choose war. Should it come to that, should Congress concede his authority to make such a choice, then we shall all bear the blame for having allowed them to squander our great inheritance. EDWARD F. UNSER JR. Richmond