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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Monday, September 15, 2014

How Congress should debate the Islamic State strategy

E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes in The Washington Post:

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.

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.

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