Congress misses the big picture on war with Iraq


WASHINGTON -- When it comes to Iraq, Congress suffers from myopia. Standing by idly or mesmerized while President Bush sets the country on an entirely new foreign policy course, members of the House and Senate seem unable to see the forest for the trees.

In this whole saga of Iraq, congressional and other critics are focusing on the trees -- the individual questions about weapons of mass destruction, about hyped intelligence, about an unproven link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, even about whether the war is over.

In doing so, they are neglecting to address the forest. That's the much bigger and more significant question of Congress' responsibility to explore the wisdom, not to mention the constitutionality, of engaging in a pre-emptive war as part of a new and overarching American approach for dealing with the world.

In September, the Bush White House issued a comprehensive national security strategy paper laying out a new foreign policy agenda serving notice that it intended, if necessary, as the world's undisputed superpower, to strike first against perceived global threats to ourselves or our friends.

The unprecedented declaration of the right to pre-emption -- unilaterally, if it were to come to that -- created scarcely a ripple in Congress, aside from a few days of Senate hearings that discussed its constitutional power to declare war and whether the president could wage war on his own. Several constitutional scholars said no; an assistant attorney general in the administration said yes. One senator who got exercised, the venerable Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, was dismissed, as usual, as the body's crazy old uncle.

Before long, the president began implementing the new policy toward Iraq, tying Mr. Hussein (with no hard evidence) to al-Qaida and the war on terrorism. Dragged kicking and screaming to the U.N. Security Council by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the administration focused Congress' gaze on the trees -- the alleged connection with al-Qaida, the alleged existence of WMD posing an "imminent threat" and, ultimately, the imperative of "regime change" in Iraq.

In the process, Mr. Bush persuaded Congress to grant him authority to launch pre-emptive war as a way of strengthening his hand before the United Nations. Ultimately, it didn't work, so he went ahead with his invasion of Iraq, in keeping with the new, hard-line foreign policy. If he didn't quite act alone, his modest "coalition of the willing" came close to it.

One might have expected at this point that the lions of the Senate, protective of their role as advisers to the executive branch in foreign policy, might have been stirred to take a serious look at this sweeping new approach that broke with traditional American abhorrence of an unprovoked attack on another country.

Instead, they kept their focus on the trees, not the forest. Voices continue to be heard asking, where are those WMD, or, more recently, did the president mislead Congress and the American people with phony evidence that Iraq was moving to build nuclear weapons? Where are the questions about the new, perilous policy from anyone besides Mr. Byrd, who suffers ridicule for his efforts?

When the United States involved itself in the Vietnam War, the action was taken as part of Cold War strategy and policy, in defense of an ally, South Vietnam, faced with a clear threat from a communist regime. Even so, Congress eventually held long and probing hearings into that policy as Americans increasingly questioned the U.S. commitment and implementation.

Perhaps not enough time has passed for Congress to get beyond asking about the trees and begin looking at the forest -- the freewheeling new American policy as enforcer for the world, demonstrated currently in Iraq, with strong implications in the national security strategy paper that it will be used elsewhere, if conditions permit.

Mr. Bush, in identifying his "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- has pinpointed targets he'd like to go after. But the existence or threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea may require a return to conventional diplomacy in that case.

In any event, Congress needs to wake up and recognize that Mr. Bush's war in Iraq may be only the opening chapter in a foreign policy adventure that can have deep and destructive ramifications for America's role in the world and for domestic well-being and progress at home. Who will step back and examine what is being wrought?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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