MILFORD, N.H. -- At an early breakfast meeting the other day, Rep. John E. Sununu, after a lengthy pitch to the local Rotary Club on why he should win Tuesday's Republican senatorial primary against incumbent Bob Smith, invited questions from the audience.
The first queries, however, had nothing to do with the primary. One Rotarian demanded: "How do you solve the problem in Iraq?"
Mr. Sununu replied: "The easy answer is, you replace Saddam Hussein with a government that's representational, that's democratically elected, and that's at least neutral if not friendly to the United States."
The hard part, he went on, was how you go about it. Mr. Sununu took note of President Bush's (tardy) willingness to consult Congress and said he "has to be given the opportunity to make the case" for the best approach to military action against the Iraqi dictator -- an opportunity that many in Congress long ago had offered.
The inquiring Rotarian was not put off with that.
"The criticism of it," the Rotarian said, "is that it's viewed as American aggression, going after him."
Mr. Sununu sidestepped the question, instead lumping an Iraqi invasion with the American self-defense response in Afghanistan to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which was authorized by Congress.
In moving against Iraq, Mr. Sununu asked, "do we need the cooperation from specific allies to ensure success? Not, do we need approval to make us feel good?... These are questions that need to be asked and will be asked by the president and his national security team."
Mr. Bush, in making clear he intends to consult Congress, "is just reflecting the fact that for him to be successful, for there to be sustained support for military action, at least in the Congress, there needs to be a sharing of information," Mr. Sununu said. "Congress controls the power of the purse. That's just a constitutional fact, and every chief executive has to work with that."
Another constitutional fact, however, is that Article I, Section 8, explicitly bestows on Congress, not the president, the power "to declare war," despite the insistence by administration lawyers that he has that power by implication in Article II, Section 2, in its designation of him as "commander in chief of the Army and Navy."
This constitutional question may finally have been made moot by Mr. Bush in his stated agreement to seek authorization from Congress again, as he did after Sept. 11, as his father did before driving Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, and as Lyndon Johnson did in obtaining a blank check in Vietnam with the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
A distinction between those congressional consents and the current situation remains. As the Milford Rotarian pressed in his question, what is being contemplated is not a clearly defensive act but an offensive one with no clearly established provocation.
It remains for President Bush and Company to make the case that Iraq poses a sufficient immediate threat to warrant a pre-emptive strike, against all American principles.
What seems to be getting lost in the hysteria being fanned by Vice President Dick Cheney and others is the fact that deterrence backed by American military power worked for more than half a century in avoiding a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, an infinitely more powerful adversary.
In the absence of persuasive evidence, not yet shown, that Saddam Hussein is on the verge of using weapons of mass destruction and must not only be disarmed but also removed, an invasion is not a policy for a rational democratic government.
Better that one last U.N. inspection team be sent in with muscle to back it, if only to give more legitimacy to any military action.
With a public finally getting aroused, Congress may be the only entity that can yet stop, or at least slow down, a runaway train long enough to determine whether, after more than 200 years of this democracy, facts -- not just fears -- warrant waging pre-emptive war, at the cost of thousands of American and other lives.
Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.