There was a moment in the last quarter-century when the Congress of the United States made the nation proud. It did so across all its usual lines of division: Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, hawk and dove.
In early January 1991, the Senate and the House staged searching and often eloquent debates over the first President Bush’s decision to wage a war to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. The arguments, a prelude to votes on resolutions endorsing military action, were almost entirely free of partisan rancor and the usual questioning of adversaries’ motives.
The war was so successful we now forget how divided Congress was. In the Senate, the vote was 52 to 47, with 10 Democrats crossing party lines to embrace the Republican president’s policy. The House backed the war resolution, 250 to 183. Roughly a third of Democrats voted yes.
Far from leaving the country torn and bitter, the debate brought us together. No one on either side pretended that the choice was easy. And staging congressional consideration of the decision to act in Kuwait after the 1990 election meant that short-term political strategies were not dragged into a debate about longer-term global strategy.
One person who remembers that earlier debate is Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, so it’s not surprising that he has proposed that Congress hold a full debate about President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State after this fall’s elections.
In an interview last week, Hoyer said he believes the president already has the authority to act. But voters have a right to expect Congress to take a stand on a matter this serious, and he added that “we are stronger if we are acting in concert in a bipartisan way.” Hoyer proposes a two-step process involving, first, quick congressional approval of Obama’s proposal to train and arm Syrian rebels, and then a broader debate about the president’s overall policy after the country votes on Nov. 4.
Hoyer’s idea is wise for another reason that a practicing politician probably can’t voice: A post-election vote accepts that politics is what it is. We can get all moralistic about this. We can sermonize that politicians should always vote their consciences and should never, ever think about their own fates or the fate of their party. But to say this is to demand a degree of selflessness from men and women in the political trade that we never ask of anyone else — with the exception, of course, of our soldiers in combat.
And let’s face the fact that most politicians and the vast majority of our citizens typically feel a much larger investment in matters outside the realm of foreign policy. Most care primarily about the impact the elections will have on taxes, spending, economics or social issues. When politicians debate war policy, they shouldn’t be worrying about electoral outcomes that will affect all these other concerns in the next Congress.
A post-election debate would make it easier for Republicans who support the president’s policy to say why, and for Democrats who oppose it to ask the difficult questions his approach invites. Both sides could more frankly weigh the costs involved against other priorities.
The major objection to Hoyer’s plan is that delaying a full debate is itself irresponsible and the president shouldn’t be acting without a new congressional vote.
Here again, the parallel with 1991 is instructive.
Without congressional authorization, Bush had already sent 500,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to prepare for war. He insisted he did not need Congress’s approval to put them into action. His request for a resolution was essentially a courtesy. It came just a week before the deadline he had set for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait — and, as it happened, just nine days before the war started.
There is reason to admire Bush for waiting. Politically, he might have profited from making the war an issue in the 1990 midterm campaign. He preferred to wait. The second President Bush demanded a congressional vote on the Iraq war in the fall of 2002, before the midterms. This almost certainly helped Republican candidates and drew additional votes for his policy from Democrats fearful of bucking the president so soon after Sept. 11, 2001. But the result was a politicized debate that did not help build consensus. This came back to haunt the 43rd president.
We need a responsible Congress to begin the search for a sustainable foreign policy. An unconstrained debate after this fall’s campaign is the place to start.