WASHINGTON -- The burgeoning controversy over who should have a voice in military decisions is more of an institutional matter than a partisan one. When there were Republicans in the White House, Democratic leaders in Congress were making the same case Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole is making today for requiring congressional authorization for the use of any troops in Haiti.
The argument is also predictable. When Dole revealed he was planning such a move, Secretary of State Warren Christopher quickly countered that it would be "offensive to the Constitution" and President Clinton fretted publicly about whether it might tie his hands.
In fact, the law on who should control decisions on the use of the military is murky at best. In the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act of 1973 intended to provide a check on executive power gone too far. But the law has never been used in any effective way and presidents have tended to ignore it.
But even if the argument seems dry and academic, there is an element of politics in the current dispute that is not always present when a chief executive is deciding whether to use force to carry out some foreign policy goal as Clinton is threatening to do to install Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti.
First, national politicians in both parties recognize the strong streak of isolationism in the electorate today. One opinion survey after another finds Americans turned inward, far more concerned about their jobs and health care, crime and the condition of the schools than about what happens abroad. This sentiment has been strengthened, moreover, by the casualties in Somalia. If the voters reacted so strongly against that initiative, why should anyone expect them to be willing to take even greater risks in Haiti?
Aristide may be, as the president keeps reminding us, the democratically elected president of Haiti and thus entitled to the support of the United Nations. But he is hardly the kind of role-model national leader for whom Americans will be willing to see their sons and daughters put into jeopardy.
Nor is it easy to identify the national interest of the United States that would be served by stability in Haiti -- except, of course, to the extent that a stable government there might lead to a more prosperous economy that, in turn, could reduce the number of Haitians planning to sail off to Florida at the first opportunity.
The president's own halting performance on foreign policy also has contributed to the opposition in Congress -- it's not just Bob Dole and a few other Republicans -- to taking risks with American troops there. Clinton's exposition of his policy in Somalia wasn't convincing to the electorate, the polls show, and he has yet to try a similar explanation of the vital U.S. stake in Haiti.
Moreover, although some may have forgotten, all the politicians here remember candidate Bill Clinton last year promising to reverse the Bush administration policy against allowing more Haitian refugees into the United States. His political rhetoric set off a frenzy of boat-building and raft-building by Haitians who saw the promised land in a new administration here. As it turned out, the one who had to make the reversal and discourage the Haitians was Clinton.
There are many sound arguments that can be made for giving the president, any president, some freedom of action in using the armed forces. The notion that he must be required to get a resolution through Congress every time a small crisis occurs is unrealistic. But it is equally true that Clinton has not built the kind of confidence in his decision-making so that he is above challenge from Congress.
In the long run it is likely that Clinton will avoid any heavy use of force in Haiti, despite those warships dispatched to enforce the United Nations sanctions. He and his advisers know as well as anyone that it would be foolhardy to risk any substantial casualties when the end result is so much in doubt and the prize so dubious. And in the long run it is equally likely that Congress won't find a way to micro-manage foreign policy decisions by cutting off funding.
At the moment, however, it is clear that Bob Dole has the political high ground in an old argument that may never be settled.