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Allies outrank Congress as Clinton ponders Bosnia


The White House has been trying its best to persuade our European allies to act with us in Bosnia.

And the White House has spent many long hours working out contingencies with the United Nations.

These things are necessary before we commit U.S. combat troops to the Balkans.

One thing the White House feels is not necessary, however, is any act by the Congress of the United States.

The Clinton administration has spent far more time talking to foreigners about American plans in Bosnia than to Americans.

L You might think most members of our Congress would be upset.

Instead, they are resigned.

Here is House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., speaking last week: "We've got to be very sure of what our interests are, what our objectives are, what the costs are going to be, what we can achieve and how we can get out. . . . None of them have been articulated to the Congress or the American people at this point."

And I thought for a second there that Hamilton might be ready to insist on some congressional oversight.

But the wind soon rushed out of his sails.

"You can't really beat a president on a national-security issue," Hamilton said. "I'd expect him to get what he wants when the time comes."

So why should Bill Clinton bother articulating anything to Congress? Why waste time on a bunch of wimps when he has got serious participants -- England, France, the United Nations and the Serbs -- to deal with?

I am not saying the leaders of Congress play no important role in our democracy. They do:

They go on the Sunday talk shows and fill up air time.

Here is Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on "Meet the Press" last week: "I'm not in favor of ground troops any more than anybody else. . . . But the president cannot limit his options."

His options? Isn't war an option that the Constitution reserves exclusively for Congress right there in the First Article?

And it is no accident that the Constitution deals with Congress and not the presidency first. For most of U.S. history, Congress was the more important branch of government.

Congress is where the great debates took place. People knew their members of Congress, while the president was a distant figure few would see in their lifetimes.

Radio and then TV changed all that. A president could be heard and then seen by everyone.

And in modern times professional handlers have packaged presidents and sold them to us as the embodiment of all American ideals.

This has translated to enormous presidential power including the power to make war.

In 1973, Congress tried to wrest back some of this power by passing the War Powers Act over Richard Nixon's veto.

This requires the president to consult with Congress before sending U.S. troops into situations where hostilities seem imminent, to notify Congress within 48 hours of when U.S. troops are engaged in hostilities and to withdraw troops within 90 days unless Congress gives approval.

But every president from Richard Nixon through George Bush has considered it unconstitutional. (It has never been tested in court.) And it has been invoked only once: in 1983 when Ronald Reagan sent U.S. troops to Lebanon.

Recently, 91 members of Congress sent a letter to Bill Clinton in an attempt to assert the congressional authority that is written into the Constitution.

The letter said that before any U.S. troops engage in "offensive military action in the Balkans," the president "must first receive the affirmative approval of Congress as required by Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution."

This is the article that gives Congress and Congress alone the right to declare war.

But what did the White House do when it got the letter? It laughed it off. An unidentified White House official joked that the White House didn't know what it wanted to do about the letter from Congress because it didn't know what it wanted to do about the Balkans.

And that's the trouble. The White House doesn't know what it wants to do about sending U.S. troops to Bosnia.

It only knows what it doesn't want to do:

And, thus far, it doesn't want to seek permission from Congress.

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